Monday, August 31, 2009

Monday Inspiration

Last week Katie Ganshert blogged about heroes. Who are our heroes, and why? And, in turn, what makes our characters heroic?

So, for a little Monday morning inspiration, I present to you a writer hero of mine, the creator of many heroic characters, writer Joss Whedon. This is Joss's 2006 Equality Now speech: the video is 8 minutes long, and the first 2 minutes of which are Meryl Streep's introduction. In his speech, Joss answers the question, "why do you write strong women characters?" Watch the whole thing. You'll be glad you did.

Which writers are your heroes? What beloved characters did they create?

Reminder: I am on vacation this week, and this is an auto-post. I may not respond to your comments until the week of September 7th, at which point I will do a "feedback" day to catch up. But I will read everything! I promise!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Vacation bound!

Okay, everyone. Next week is going to be 100% auto-posted, because my husband, daughter and I are going on vacation! We should have internet access, but let's be honest... if there's a pool and a beach, I'm not going to want to be spending time in front of a computer coming up with new blog content. I'll almost certainly check my email while I'm there, which means I'll read your comments, but I probably won't respond to any comments until the week after next, at which point I'll do a "feedback" style post if needed to catch up, and to address any questions y'all might have had while I was gone.

So, what can you expect? Mostly frivolity... I wouldn't want to write about something too deep and then not be around to comment with you guys. There's going to be a video link for you Monday, another First Friday (of the month) Fiction contest at the end of the week, and short-and-sweet posts in between. I do hope you will continue commenting in my absence! I've tried to plan some good stuff to keep you amused until I return.

And for today, some CKHB VACATION FAQs:

Q: Will you come back with a tan?
A: Ha! I'm so pale that I'm practically Day-Glo. Sunblock with SPF 50+ is my friend.

Q: Will you write while on vacation?
A: I hope so. Probably just handwritten outlining and character sketches.

Q: Is your home going to be unoccupied while you're gone?
A: No. It's not. No trying to break in while we're traveling. That would be rude.

And now a question for you: What's your dream vacation location? Writers, have you ever sent your characters on vacation? Where did they go? My protagonist doesn't travel during the course of the novel, but she did recently get to visit her step-brother in Japan.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Finding a Crit group...

The Critique

...because you don't want to hand your work to just anyone.

On Tuesday, a commenter asked for suggestions on how to start a local writers' crit group. I'll tell you my ideas, and then let other wise people add to the list in the comments.

Idea #1: Are there any local classes you can take? As I said, my current group is primarily made up of students who got along well together in class. But you don't need to like an entire classroom full of people in order to get a group started. If you find even one student who seems to "get" your work, or who had great insights, or who seems to be in a similar stage of the writing journey as you, why not ask that person if they'd like to meet semi-regularly outside of class? I have a particularly good rapport with one person from my group, and we have tried to do weekly meetings together in addition to our larger monthly group. Sometimes we discuss our works-in-progress, sometimes we discuss other books, sometimes we talk about publishing process, sometimes we review smaller sections of each other's work. (With a one-on-one thing, there's less need for a formal structure.)

Idea #2: Are there any local writers' associations? Boston is home to Grub Street, "a non-profit creative writing center dedicated to nurturing writers and connecting readers with the wealth of writing talent in the Boston area." They teach classes, they provide writing space, they host conferences, and they have a message board where writers can -- and do! -- post that they are looking for group members in a given geographical area. I've seen people building crit groups all over Massachusetts through this board.

Idea #3: Do you have a local bookstore? Indie stores are especially great as they often attract a certain writerly/literary community... the two in my area each have book clubs for readers, and regularly host author readings and signings. If there's a community message board in the store or right outside, that's an easy place to post an ad, but if not, go ahead and talk to one of the salespeople or someone behind the information desk. They might know of a group you can join, or at least have ideas about where best to recruit.

Idea #4: Craigslist. They have everything.

Idea #5: In November, it will be National Novel Writing Month again. That means that, starting in October, the forums will be buzzing again, and you can go hang with your regional group. Maybe they'll do some local meetups during November, and maybe you'll find some long-term writing partners.

It seems that crit groups have been on the collective brain this week: the agent blog at Crowe's Nest did a post on the Anatomy of Writer's Group yesterday, and today Sierra Godfrey talked about How To Give Someone Feedback On Their Story. I think I'll do something like a "seven habits of highly effective crit groups" in the near future, but until then, I'll simply say that if your crit group is not quite working for you? LEAVE. Say you don't have time, or that you need some space without outsider input for a while in order to strengthen your craft, whatever, but leave. If it's not fun, if you're not learning, if no one else "gets" your genre, if you're not comfortable with the group's discussion dynamics or style of critique, get out. Crit groups only work if they work, you know?

Does anyone else have ideas on how to find a local, actually-meets-in-person crit group?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Well, that was unexpected.

(FYI: more on writers' groups tomorrow.)

Have your characters surprised you recently? I'm messing about with a new novel, and a little while ago, I realized that a major character was black. That was a good moment, because it was one of those times where some part of the character's personality and/or background had been elluding me and all of a sudden, duh, it fell into place.


I keep writing and messing about. And then suddenly, I realize... the character that I was planning to have as that guy's sister... is not black. In fact, she's from a ridiculously white bread household. She's WASP-tacular. So now she can't be his sister anymore, because neither of these characters is adopted or has stepparents or any of the other circumstances that would lead to a mixed-race household.


She's a wonderfully annoying character, and I think my main characters really need this irritation in their lives, but now I'm not sure where she fits. She can't be a coworker for a bunch of reasons I won't get into here. Maybe a neighbor...

This is putting a serious crimp in my plot planning. Anyone else ever have something like this happen while writing?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

My Writing Group

Critiquing Rule

(Why, yes, I do think you'll be seeing more InkyGirl comics on my blog in the future, why do you ask?)

So, I mentioned yesterday that I had to read 50 pages of manuscript for my writers' group (yes, I did get it done on time), and one commenter expressed surprise at the volume of reading to be done, so I thought that today I would give a little summary of how my writing group functions, and how we found each other.

First of all, those 50 pages were in fact closer to 75 pages, but I shrunk the margins and spacing to save on printing costs. (I can't believe I'm running out of ink again.) This is because our group meets once a month, and reviews up to 100 pages of writing at a time. Originally, we thought that we might have a session split up between multiple authors (two writers with 50 pages each, for example) but so far it has been a one-session-per-author critique group. And it's working quite well.

There are no limitations on what kind of writing each person wants to present to the group. Most of us are working on novels, but we also have a memoirist, and someone recently submitted 5 short stories for us to consider, because she wanted help picking which ones she should submit to an MFA program.

There are no rules about how polished the work has to be in order to be submitted. I was basically done when I submitted my pages, and I was looking for assistance with my final polish. But yesterday we had someone who was in the very early stages of the work, who wanted creative feedback and guidance with character before he'd committed too much to paper. (Personally, I think that's extremely brave, and I hope he walked out of our session feeling encouraged and inspired.)

We call ourselves the Upton Street Writers... we were supposed to be named after the street where we host most of our meetings, but it turns out that we screwed up and got the address wrong. There is no Upton Street. But it sounded even better than the name of the real street, and we decided not to fix our mistake. Upton Street Writers. Dig it.

And how did we meet? The founding members of the Upton Street Writers were students in a local Novel Development Workshop. We were very lucky -- all of us were of a similar skill set and a similar state of mind. There was no one with irreparably bad grammar and delusions of grandeur, no one who thought s/he was finished learning, no one who felt the need to dominate every discussion. (I think we were assisted by the fact that the course required all of us to have a novel in progress, so that even those students who had very few pages to start out with were nevertheless quite serious about the endeavor.)

So we stuck together. We've lost a couple members when they moved out of the city for work/school obligations, but we've brought in replacement members who have been "vetted" by original members. Our original group was 9 people, and I don't think we'll ever want to go over 10-12, lest we lose our cozy vibe.

I now open the floor for questions and comments. Anything you want to know about my current writing group? Do you have a group yourself? If so, how many people are there, how often do you meet, how much material do you review at one time, and how did you find each other? Have you ever been in a particularly good or bad writing group? Tell us all about it!

(To see the original comic, complete with punch line, go to And please also note how nicely I've coordinated these lemmings with yesterday's hamster.)

Monday, August 24, 2009

Here. Have a cute.

Sorry, everyone, I have nothing for you today. I have to read 50 pages of manuscript for my writer's group tonight, I have to make sure my bills are paid, I want to get some quality time with the toddler, and I've already wasted the morning. You, my dear readers, are sadly getting the short end of my time-management stick today.

Have a hamster. I'll do better tomorrow.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Nnnng... ungh... gahhahng... BRAINS!

(Finnish road sign -- needs no translation)

Are you prepared? The scientists are taking this very seriously, y'all. Don't believe me? Go read the mathematical modelling of of an outbreak of zombie infection.

Oh, what? I can't write about writing every day, can I?

Fine, here's a writing update... I called the "caller ID agent" back. Short version: another rejection. Long version: I had called the agency on Monday to check on the status of my queries, we chatted briefly, and I resent the query again. She then called back because she wasn't sure if her reply to my most recent query had gone through (it hadn't). Apparently my first two queries -- sent 16 and 8 weeks ago, respectively -- never arrived, but the query I sent on Monday to her personal email instead of the general submissions email got there fine. But then her reply never made it back. Ah, better living through technology! (Apparently my ninja manuscript has been giving stealth lessons to my query letters, and is now messing with my email settings. ARGH!)

She said that she probably would have asked to see pages if my book was longer -- my word count is indeed below the generally-accepted "sweet spot" of 80K-100K -- or if the story had grabbed her just a little bit more. She said I should "absolutely, please do" submit to her again in the future, so I'm going to put this rejection in the "personal/positive rejection" category, because agents do not encourage more queries unless they like something about what you've written. (Sure, sometimes a form letter will say "keep writing and submitting," but that can mean "you need more practice, and you should submit to someone else.")

Oh, and if all the remaining agents say no to me, maybe I'll add 20K words and ask if she'd be interested in seeing a revised and updated version. And I'll fax it.

In the meantime, be vigilant.

(Happy Friday, everyone!)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Hope for Chick Lit?

As I've said in my previous posts on chick lit, this is a genre that has nearly always gotten a bad rap, even when it was popular. Indeed, perhaps because it used to be popular. In 2005, Jennifer Weiner said,
"The more I think about the increasingly angry divide between ladies who write literature and chicks who write chick lit, the more it seems like a grown-up version of the smart-versus-pretty games of years ago; like so much jockeying for position in the cafeteria and mocking the girls who are nerdier/sluttier/stupider than you to make yourself feel more secure about your own place in the pecking order." (Source article here.)
If chick lit was the "pretty girl" in 2005... well, now chick lit is the former high school cheerleader who didn't make it in Hollywood like she said she would, got heavy, got dumped, and had to move back home. Schadenfreude, anyone?

Even authors of chick lit are discussing the death of chick lit in light of the recession: "Like many American businesses, chick-lit must reinvent itself—fast—if it’s going to survive."

But some chick lit was always smart and pretty. Some chick lit put its money in the bank instead of buying Manolos.

Two years ago, Jessica Faust said that she thought "people tired quickly of the snappy, acerbic 'lits' and want the quieter, more dramatic read." (Source article here.) But I think there's a middle ground. I don't think wit and drama are mutually exclusive. Neither does our feminist friend Jennifer Weiner:
Though they also contain dating, shopping and brunching, Weiner’s books aim to address “the big questions: How do you make a happy life? The choices women make—what you get and what you give up.” (Source article here.)
Eric at Pimp My Novel has been doing a series of posts on genre-specific book sales, and yesterday he covered Sales for Women's Fiction. He considers chick lit to be an "I know it when I see it" subset of women's fiction, and apparently women's fiction is doing reasonably well. I think the key to the chick lit comeback is going to be marketing.

As I said in the Pimp My Novel comments, and as I've probably said before here (sorry for the repetition, but I never know if someone's a brand-new visitor to the blog), I have a 20-something unmarried urban female as my protagonist, with a first-person P.O.V., and a confidential and somewhat humorous "voice." This defines chick lit. All I can do is call it "smart" chick lit to try to show that it's NOT ABOUT SHOPPING, and hope that when it gets published, it doesn't have a pink cover.

Let's go back to Jennifer Weiner one more time. Her second book was one of her most popular ("best-sellingest"), and it came out in 2002. The cover? High heels, baby, and pinks and pastels. And of course the title is In Her Shoes. The book before that was called Good in Bed. Look, I adore Ms. Weiner, this is not a critique. But the fact is that titles that hinted at sex and shopping were very appropriate and timely for books that debuted in 2001 and 2002, when Sex and the City was still running new seasons on HBO. This packaging wouldn't go over nearly as well today.

Let's now compare and contrast with her newest release, Best Friends Forever. No sex (they're best friends, after all, not lovers), no shoes (the two women on the cover are barefoot, and you can't even see if they are holding any shoes in their hands), and the hint of pink in one cover model's dress does not overwhelm the blue and white tones of the sky and beach. Very, very good marketing.

And what of the content of these books? Has that changed with the times? I doubt it. Not the core of the novels, anyway. Here's the summary of In Her Shoes from Ms. Weiner's website: "It's the story of two sisters, Maggie and Rose, with nothing in common but the same size feet, and how they make peace with their family, their history, and with each other, in a totally non-improbable, un-sappy way that involves neither Hollywood or movie stars."

If this book hit the shelves today, they'd call it Sisterly Love or something like that. No high heels on the cover. Same story, new packaging. And the new book is about "a popular girl who hits trouble long after high school and only the geeky pal she once shunned can help"... if marketed in 2002, it might have been called Walk a Mile in Her Shoes.

Take heart, writers of smart chick lit. Readers will always want books about love, and family, and growing up, and relationships. They just might want their heroines to be wearing Payless instead of Prada. If your book can handle that change, then you're not writing something obsolete... you just need to find the agent who sees the soul underneath the chick lit label.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Let's all pretend this is spelled correctly...

Thank you most kindly to Jeannie Campbell for this award! Man, though, it kills me that this is spelled "kreativ." I'm hoping it's intentionally ironic or something...

According to the rules, I should list 7 things about myself that people might find interesting, and then pass it on... but, I'm going to be creative and mix it up a little (surely you admit the inventors of the award were asking for this). In honor of Jeannie's other blog, The Character Therapist, where authors are encouraged to learn more about their own characters, and are often invited to comment in the voice of those characters, I'm going to post 7 things about the main character of my current novel, In Name Only (working title) that future readers might find interesting.
  1. Dani Kobayashi has no middle name.
  2. She makes handmade paper from scratch, using base materials like old blue jeans and junk mail.
  3. Her first name means "my judge."
  4. She's a lefty. (Hmm. I don't think that's in the novel, actually...)
  5. When she sees a formerly classic name that has modified to be more trendy or "unique" -- say, with the addition of several extraneous Ys -- she disdains that name as being "kre8iv."
  6. Like the protagonist of so many chick lit novels, Dani has a gay best friend... actually, two. And they're women, not men.
  7. Unlike the protagonist of so many chick lit novels, Dani wears shoes that are never described by their brand name. Or described at all, really. Although at least one pair is seriously fugly.
How about you guys? Writers, please post one interesting thing about one of your protagonists... and, if you're not a fiction writer, please post one thing about yourself that we might not otherwise have known. Thanks!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The State of the Query

Okay, today I'm going to give you all the specifics on my querying status. Some of you might be interested because you like me and want to know the details of how I'm doing out there in agent-land, and some of you might be interested because knowing someone else's statistics make the querying process seem just a little bit more accessible and less mysterious. I know I was very hungry for numbers when I first started sending these letters out the door...

Plus, I got a call yesterday that is driving me crazy, and this summary will help me regroup. Yes, you'll have to read all the way to the end to find out about the call.

Between April 15, 2009 and June 24, 2009, I sent out a total of 76 queries. One agent wrote back saying that she wasn't taking new clients after all, and therefore did not review or consider my query, so let's take that number down to 75 valid queries.

Of those 75 queries, I've had 29 form rejections (38%).

I've also had 2 rejections based on genre... they don't think they can sell chick lit right now (3%).

I've also had 17 "no responses" that must be assumed to be rejections, because the agents have a "no response means no" policy, and it's been long enough by now (22%).

Also in the "no response" category are 11 outstanding queries where I do still, eventually, expect an answer of some sort, even though in some cases it's been as long as 18 weeks (15%).

Now, onto the good news. Those of you who have done your homework know that there is more than one kind of rejection. There's the form rejection, and there's the "personal rejection": this does not mean that they reject your manuscript and also say that you have a big nose, it means that the agents have taken some precious time out of their already packed days to say something positive about your manuscript. It's a rejection, but it also means that you're doing something right. At the very least, it means that your query letter doesn't suck, because the agent went on to read some of your pages. (See my "thanks for the rejection" post for more thoughts on this.)

I have received 6 personal rejections (8%).

I have also gotten 10 requests for additional materials, either a partial or full manuscript (14%).

Of those 10 requests, 5 have since been rejected (but usually in a very nice way). That means that out of 75 original queries, I am now hanging my hopes on 5 agents who have asked to see more (7%).

I guess there's also hope to be had in that 15% that hasn't gotten back to me at all yet, but naturally I tend to think I have better odds with an agent who read three chapters, then asked to see the whole thing, rather than with an agent who only has the one-page query letter on her desk.

And what about that phone call? Yesterday, according to my home telephone's caller I.D., I got a call from an agent. S/he did not leave a message. S/he did not call back, or email.

GAHHHH! What does that mean?

I'm going to give it until the end of the week, then do a polite status check-in with that agency. In the meantime, I'll be pretending to focus on a million other things, but failing.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Winner of the Worst First Line Contest Revealed

In the end, we had 19 valid entries for the Worst First Line Contest... not enough for me to take a picture of myself standing on my head for your amusement. I get it. You all just respect me too much to want me to embarrass myself. I appreciate your concern.

My husband reviewed all entries this weekend, and picked the following first-line dud as the winner:
It was (and it wasn't, but that's a different story altogether).
Congratulation to Lisa P. for the sentence that would cause my husband to laugh, then put the book down and walk away. You will be receiving your prize fudge recipe by email shortly.

And thank you to everyone else for playing. Thank you so much, I was laughing all week at your awesomely bad entries.

So, what's on tap for this week? More ranting about chick lit, I suspect (my previous ranting can be found here), since I just discovered yet another "chick lit is dead" article, plus our dear friend at Pimp My Novel is planning to include chick lit/women's fiction among his Genre-Specific Book Sales Round-Up posts this week.

I also hope to write another post about the writing/life balancing act (parenting edition), and maybe something about querying.

Speaking of querying, nothing has changed in my querying status since I last mentioned it nearly two months ago. Writers, how about you? What's your current writing status? Are you editing or creating something new? Waiting for responses to queries? Got an agent already and are waiting for something to come back on the publishing side of things? If you're not a fiction writer like many of my readers, what other things are you up to? Blogging? Non-fiction articles? Let's find out what we like to write and what stage we're at...

Friday, August 14, 2009

Last chance for the contest, and an amusing challenge

You have until MIDNIGHT TONIGHT* to post up to THREE ENTRIES in this month's fiction contest. I'm looking for "worst first lines." Give me something terrible, people. Your reward will be the admiration of your peers, plus a rockin' fudge recipe. Check out the contest post and other entries in the comments, HERE.

I have to go find my law school transcript for a job application now. Please go enter the contest! It will make me oh-so-happy. Tell your friends! I only have 13 entries right now. I tell you what... if I get a total of 25 entries or more, I will post a self-portrait of myself standing on my head. That's right, I will have to figure out some way to stand on my head while simultaneously taking a photo of myself. Help me hustle up some more worst first lines, and I will embarrass myself just for you.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

* To my Aussie, Kiwi, and other international readers, don't worry about the time change, I'll figure it out. Midnight your time is cool.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

What makes you pick up a book?

QUICK CONTEST CLARIFICATION: it seems from the comments of multiple people that there is some confusion as to the rules. I am looking for a "worst first line" that is your original work, that has been created purely for this contest. I'm not asking you to find something you already wrote that perhaps you once thought was good, but now realize is bad. No research needed, just a little bad inspiration.

Also, a few people have said they don't have time, and if you don't want to make time for it, that's totally cool, I'm sure y'all have many better things to do. But, if you want to play along, I swear it will take next to no time at all. I told my husband I was running this contest, and he immediately said, "After they unstapled his penis from the board, he realized his day was only going to get worse." Dude, I don't want to read that book, do you? That's a bad first sentence. (Caveat: if someone like David Sedaris was the author, I would keep reading the book, because I'd expect some good funny. But if I had the slightest inkling that it was going to be one of those horror/torture-porn books, I'd drop it like it was covered in roaches.)

My point here is that bad first sentences need not be long and creatively awful. They can also be short and gross, or boring. "Jill started clipping her toenails" is not an auspicious start. You get the idea. Click the link over there on the right and give it a go.

Now, onto TODAY'S TOPIC.

What makes you pick up a book to read? Do you do your own research? Do you rely on the recommendations of friends and family with similar tastes? Are you swayed by the display racks in stores? Do you trust the automatically generated recommendations of places like, or are you loyal to the staff recommendations wall at your local indie store? Do you always buy the same authors?

I have one local indie store in particular that has some good tables to browse where I am often surprised by a new set of offerings that I don't see at other stores. I regularly check out the IndieNext list. I've started going to more author readings in my area, and I always buy the book so that I can get a signature and have a chance to talk with the author afterwards. I subscribe to the Barnes & Noble "Meet the Writers" podcasts (there's an audio and a video) and will sometimes buy a book based on those author interviews. My husband is mostly a non-fiction reader, so if he recommends a novel for me, I know it's going to be good. And I'll take friend recommendations into consideration as well, although for some reason I still haven't been willing to dive into Middlesex, even though six different people have told me I'd like it...

My most recent purchase? The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, because in his B&N interview, the Knopf Chairman and Editor-in-Chief Sonny Mehta described the title character thusly:
I believe Larsen said in an interview that he'd often wondered what Pippi Longstocking was going to be when she grew up, and I think that is what Lisbeth is in this novel.
Yeah, now I have to read it.

How about you? What's the most recent book you picked up, and why?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

You may already be a winner!

Assuming, that is, that you've already entered this month's fiction contest. (Go ahead. Check it out. You can come back right after.)

I've decided that this month's prize will be my coveted fudge recipe, which I won at my law school's charity auction, and which must only be passed on to people who prove their worthiness by buying it at other charity auctions, or by winning a contest. I'm serious about this. Don't hand it off to just ANYONE if you're the lucky winner.

Oh, and if you're vegan, I'll come up with a backup prize for you, just let me know.

Why have I chosen this prize? Well, last month's prize had a cool tie-in to my novel, but apparently my postal carrier hates me, because even though I sent it out weeks ago to the July winner, it was just returned to me because the stamps apparently fell off, and I'm going to have to resend it (sorry, Katie!!!), and so I figured this month I'd pick something that I could just email. Grrr.

You have until midnight Friday to submit no more than three worst first lines of your own creation. I will choose a handful of my favorites, and let my husband pick the winner.

And, just so that we have something to talk about in the comments today... are there any lines from actual published novels that stick out in your mind as being particularly bad? Please share!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Don't like it? Or don't "get" it?

Yes, that's an otter scratching his head. I'm sure I could have found a photo that better evokes the sense of being confused, but... LOOK! OTTER! Awwwwwwww.

So, yesterday I briefly alluded to my belief that there is a difference between not liking a book and not "getting" a book (although I imagine the frustration associated with the latter often leads to a sense of the former).

I think that I "get" The Great Gatsby. It's a Jazz Age cautionary tale about the glittering temptations of money and ambition, with some love and new beginnings thrown in, that reveals the dark side of the American Dream. I DON'T CARE. Those horrible characters deserve every bad thing that happens to them, and I can't stand reading about them, it's like being trapped at a cocktail party with people who think they're better than you simply because you have the basic decency to nod and listen when they talk.

The Liberated Bride, however, is a book I don't "get." The language is beautiful, and there is so much of interest going on (it is set in 1990's Israel and explores political elements as well as personal)... and I just have no idea what I was supposed to get from this book. I want to like it, but it eludes me.

And I'm going to have to move into the realm of films to come up with an example of a story that I both dislike and don't "get." Napoleon Dynamite. What the hell is up with that movie? It's boring, annoying, stupid, and so many people seem to think that it's genius. I hate it AND I don't get it. You don't want to just punch every character in the face? Really? Why not? Because I really, really do. I can't imagine why anyone would want to write about these people. At least I know why someone would, in theory, want to write about Jay Gatsby and Daisy.

Which is worse? A book you don't like, or a book you don't get? Wait, I think I've got it. The worst is a book you don't like because you don't get why everyone ELSE likes it.

Let's start going back to the good stuff. What is a book that you like, but you feel like some part of it is just beyond your reach? Is there a book you love where you're just dying to go up to the author and ask, "but what did you mean by that?" Any endings you want to have explained?

Monday, August 10, 2009

While we're on the subject...

Okay, so last week I blogged about a book I hated. And then I asked you to write a worst first line for this month's contest. Can I get some more thoughts from you on books you don't like?

What books do you hate that other people seem to love? And let's try to skip the popular titles like The DaVinci Code and/or John Grisham novels where, despite their bestsellerdom, I think there is a large and identifiable group of haters out there... is there any book that you hated or didn't "get" (I think these are two separate categories, actually, but I'm super busy today and will have to discuss that more tomorrow) where you seriously feel like you are the only person on the planet who sees that the book is, in fact, total garbage?

I hate The Great Gatsby. Hate it. I think every single character is irredeemably unlikeable, and I can't imagine why anyone would want to read more than five pages about them. I hated it in high school, tried to read it again as an adult, and couldn't even finish it. I don't care if there's some grand social commentary there -- American Psycho has horrible, selfish, evil characters as part of a social commentary construct, but I'm not supposed to like them, and that makes a world of difference. In Gatsby, I'm clearly supposed to like, admire, and/or sympathize with these people, and I refuse. I find them detestable. And I don't think there is anything remotely special about the language of the book. It's boring, and the parts that aren't boring make me angry, because these people are vile and don't deserve the attention they're getting.

How about you? What classic novel or critically acclaimed book is one that you can't stand?

Friday, August 7, 2009

First Friday Fiction Contest!


Yes, it's once again the first Friday of the month, so we're having another fiction contest! This month, I'm looking for a WORST FIRST LINE.

Don't think this is going to be easy, people. Don't think "It was a dark and stormy night" is going to cut it. First of all, Madeleine L'Engle redeemed that line by using it to start her novel A Wrinkle in Time. Second, the reason that line is considered to be so famously bad is because it is the start (just the start, mind you) of a novel called Paul Clifford by English novelist Edward George Bullwer-Lytton:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
Ouch. Now that's bad.

Think you've got what it takes to be terrible? Post in the comments!

And don't forget to check out the "winners" of the Bullwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which annually honors a previously unpublished worst first line. The grand prize winners are so awful that they occasionally approach the sublime...
"Ace, watch your head!" hissed Wanda urgently, yet somehow provocatively, through red, full, sensuous lips, but he couldn't you know, since nobody can actually watch more than part of his nose or a little cheek or lips if he really tries, but he appreciated her warning.
They had but one last remaining night together, so they embraced each other as tightly as that two-flavor entwined string cheese that is orange and yellowish-white, the orange probably being a bland Cheddar and the white . . . Mozzarella, although it could possibly be Provolone or just plain American, as it really doesn't taste distinctly dissimilar from the orange, yet they would have you believe it does by coloring it differently.
Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin' off Nantucket Sound from the nor' east and the dogs are howlin' for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the crew of the "Ellie May," a sturdy whaler Captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin' and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests.
No more than three entries, please. You have ONE WEEK to submit your entry, and I will announce the prize next week, after I figure out what it is. To ensure objectivity, I will narrow the entries down to the worst 5 or so, then let my husband pick the winner. He knows bad writing when he sees it...

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Be precise.

My daughter, Serious Girl, is a tough audience. She has all her books and songs memorized, and will let you know with an angry wail if you've gotten anything wrong. This makes for problematic story-time if, for example, I'm also trying to cook dinner, and she's holding the book on the other side of the kitchen, and I'm trying to read the story upside down or remember the words when I can't even see what page she's on.

She used to only object to big mistakes like skipping an entire sentence, but now she will vociferously protest if I say "mama says" instead of "says mama" when reading her Five Little Monkeys book. She howled when I said "will" instead of "may" while reading Dr. Seuss. And she recently burst into tears during a rendition of The Three Little Pigs when I said "a" instead of "the" during a critical scene. It was past her bedtime, but this still seemed to be disproportionate reaction to me at the time, especially since I've NEVER read this story in book form, and she was instead insisting that my own personal invented/memorized version of the bedtime story be nearly identical night after night.

Still, I'm starting to think she may have a point. Will and may do, in fact, have extremely different meanings, as do the and a. (I hold the line at "mama says" vs. "says mama", however. I firmly believe that those are complete functional equivalents.)

How nitpicky do you get during edits? One can't get this language-obsessed during a first draft or the story will never be written (or, okay, you'll end up spending 3+ years on the thing like I did because my internal editor lives for this kind of parsing), but I think that once you've got a clean draft -- no more "insert chapter here" notations in the margins -- that it is worth doing this kind of editorial thinking.

Can you do it yourself? Do you need to hand it off to someone else? Do you not worry about it unless the sentence is kind of jarring to you on the page and clearly needs some help?

For me, I can't do this kind of editing on the computer, but it comes pretty naturally to me if I'm reading a printed page. (I think legal training helps in this arena.) However. I don't think you're really done until you have read the manuscript aloud to actually listen for these nuances... I've also heard that some people recommend reading the manuscript backwards, but I think that would make my head explode.

Please read your finished novel out loud. Yes, it's crazy time-consuming. But some stuff looks great on the page, and sounds just ridiculous. And it's not just for the novel's dialogue: all parts of the novel should work when read aloud, I promise you. The rhythm is there, in people's heads as they read, and you just may be too close to the work for your own internal reader to catch it. So make that reader external, and you'll be amazed at what you find.

My daughter knows how to catch mistakes in a story that's being read out loud. You should, too.

Have you ever read your work out loud? Publicly or privately? Did you catch anything? I once caught a sentence like "she was wearing a cotton sweater made of cotton" only after reading it out loud. And it was in the first 10 pages of the novel -- that's embarrassing.

And, the fun question: who do you want to read the audiobook of your novel? Do you want to do it yourself? (I do!) Or is there some celebrity who might perhaps do the work justice?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

I'm on a roll!

Award #2. Awwww, yeah.

Thanks to Melody of Newly Minted Mrs. for the honor! Melody and I know each other from a chat room (of sorts), and I'm SO glad she's blogging now.

So, in accordance with the rules of the award, here are 10 "insightful truths" about myself:
  1. I am a bird person, but if asked to pick between cat and dog, I will pick dog.
  2. I have been terrified of injections/needles ever since a traumatic series of allergy tests at age 9 or so. I have had dental work done without anesthesia because I'm more scared of needles than I am of drills.
  3. On the other hand, I have no fear of heights. My husband may never forgive me for insisting on bungee-jumping during our honeymoon. (It was awesome. I would do it again in a heartbeat.)
  4. At some point in every law job I've ever had, someone has said, "since you used to act, you should be great in the courtroom!" Um, acting is scripted. I have no stage fright, but that doesn't mean I magically know how to cross-examine a witness in a securities or IP case without hours of practice.
  5. Favorite books: The Cider House Rules by John Irving, and How To Be Good by Nick Hornby. Favorite plays: The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein, and Burn This by Lanford Wilson. Favorite short stories: The Short Happy Life of Francis MacComber by Ernest Hemingway, and Pop Art by Joe Hill.
  6. Evidence of being a late bloomer: I'm 35, and I still I don't know how to drive and have never had a driver's license. I also didn't get my ears pierced until I was 23.
  7. If I could have one magic talent, it would be the ability to understand and speak every language in the world. Or at the very least, French, Japanese, and Greek.
  8. I have very little ability to filter for privacy. I will never be a woman of mystery. I kind of just... share.
  9. Similarly, I have very little filtering for people of authority. I'm not inappropriately casual, but it honestly has never occurred to me to hide what I think about something just because I'm talking to my boss.
  10. I'm worried these aren't "insightful" enough.
I'm going to be a bad blogger now, and punt on passing the torch; picking 5 bloggers two days ago was demanding enough, I don't think I can pick more... Instead, I would adore it if you would all leave a single insightful truth about yourself in the comments. Let the sharing begin!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Want your book to make readers "feel something"? You don't want them to feel like THIS...

"This novel is not to be tossed lightly aside, but to be hurled with great force."
-Dorothy Parker

I finished a book last night, and I hated it. I'm not going to explicitly say which one, but it was a NYTimes bestseller (I think it hit #1), and one of the author's backlist books is currently on two of the NY Times bestseller lists right now, in both trade and mass market. (If you think you know which book I mean, you can just use the title's initials in the comments, and I will confirm or deny. I'm not trying to protect the author's identity, I'm trying to protect any readers who might not want to have the book spoilered by me. There are spoilers ahead.)

The author is considered to be a real talent, and I had no issues with her writing from a technical perspective... but the ending made me furious. First, it seemed like a knock-off of the ending of one of her other novels.

Second, I think that in the final chapter, the characters do something that seems kinda cool and noble and dramatic, but is in fact completely unrealistic, that people would talk about doing but never actually do. I followed these characters for over 400 pages, and there's no way they would behave that way. I know it sounds good in theory, but it would never actually happen, and it rings horribly false on the page.

Third, I can't stand it when a character dies for no earthly good reason. This book's ending reminded me of the French movie Le salaire de la peur / Wages of Fear. (Drat, now I've just spoiled a movie as well. Oh heck, it's a 1953 movie, you've either seen it by now or you probably weren't going to.) In this movie, men are hired to transport an urgent nitroglycerine shipment to help put out an oil fire, over craggy, bumpy, destroyed roads, in decrepit trucks, such that at any time the unstable substance might be jostled and explode, killing the drivers. One guy makes it, gets the big pay day, and then cheerfully drives home like an IDIOT (intentionally swerving from side to side in the truck while whistling a happy tune) and kills himself by running off the road and over a cliff.

WTF? I stuck around for that? That's not meaningful. That doesn't teach me some additional lesson about the unpredictability and fleeting nature of life. That doesn't make me want to cherish every day I have, it makes me want to violently shake the now-dead character for being so stupid. It's a cheap cop-out to try to get tear-jerking at the end, and it's bad writing and bad storytelling.

I'm officially off this writer. I'm never buying another book of hers again. Either she killed off the character because she didn't know how else to handle the ending when she got there, or she had the death planned from the start, and either way I'm disgusted. And there's definitely a "darling" phrase at the end, which has me leaning towards planned-from-the-start. Kill your darlings, writers; even if you're a bestseller, don't think you can get away with it. You can't.

Anyone else ever read a book that self-destructed in the last 10 pages? What went wrong? How do you avoid such pitfalls in your own work?

Next on this blog:

Wednesday: I accept a blog award that requires me to post insightful truths about myself.

Thursday: I have no idea yet.

Friday: FIRST FRIDAY FICTION CONTEST #2! I'll give you a hint. Each entry must be only one sentence long.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Hey, wow. Thank you!

I am hereby issuing a heartfelt thank you to Stephanie of Steph in the City for bestowing me with my first blog award. I only started this blog six-and-a-half weeks ago, and of course I immediately emailed some friends begging them to come visit and comment, so that I didn't feel like I was pathetically having a one-sided conversation all alone in the middle of the internets...

And now I'm having a total Sally Field moment. (You like me! You really like me!)

So, now it's my turn to pass the baton. Here are the award rules:
  1. Each Superior Scribbler must in turn pass The Award on to 5 most-deserving Bloggy Friends.
  2. Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author & the name of the blog from whom he/she has received The Award.
  3. Each Superior Scribbler must display The Award on his/her blog, and link to This Post, which explains The Award.
  4. Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit This Post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky List. That way, we’ll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives This Prestigious Honor!
  5. Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his/her blog.

So, my winners are...

Andrew Jack Writing: because you should read the free chapters of his book that he's got posted on his blog.

Between Lightning
: writing and motherhood. Check, and check.

Books, Bubs and Writing Blather
: a fellow feather-ruffler (if we do our jobs right, anyway!).

Daily Writing: because I just started clicking on her "older favorites" links, and I think I'm impressed.

Virtual Wordsmith: only three followers on this blog? That ain't right. Go fix it, people.

Okay, I'm starting to feel bad for leaving out some other bloggers I love. But I trust that you all click around on the blogs of the other commenters, and will eventually find each other, right? Right?