Saturday, April 7, 2012

Lectio Divinia and Reading

Scott D. Parker

I'm going to bring a little religion to this blog today. It's holy week and it seems like as good time as any.

This past Thursday at church, I participated in a dramatic reenactment of the Last Supper. The preparation involved the obvious act of memorization. As Joelle or any other actor knows, the first thing you have to do is actually memorize the words. This can sometimes be difficult, but memorization has always been something I can do well. Got lots of practice learning Star Wars minutia back in the day. With each rehearsal, I got more comfortable reciting the lines and, after a while, I started to internalize the words. I started to find the spaces between the phrases, emphasize some words over others, and, since it was a religious text, I started to meditate and pray on the material.

Why do I bring this up here. To talk a bit about the concept of Lectio Divinia. It is a particularly unique way to read scripture (and anything for that matter). There are four parts to this practice: read, meditate, pray and contemplate. In the Christian tradition, a person reads a passage of scripture, thinks about its meaning, followed by prayer and contemplation. I think many of us do the first, second, and fourth things on that list when we read fiction, at least with authors we enjoy.

All of this preparation and memorization of the script for the play coincided with my reading of the first five books of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars tales. Up until I read these books back-to-back, I had not read the the same author consecutively in a long time. And when I say "long time," I'm meaning that I literally cannot remember the last time I did it. It might have been when the third book of Timothy Zahn's Star Wars trilogy was released back in the mid 1990s. I re-read the first two to lead into the third. I've always shied away from reading the same author in a row mainly because I didn't want to get burned out on one author or series. Also, there are so many books out there that spending time with one author seemed like a poor way to read.

Reading Burroughs changed that, at least in these past few months. Reading and listening to these five books (approximately a thousand pages) without a break was fun, entertaining, enlightening, and educational. I began to see how Burroughs put words together, the style of paragraphs he liked, and the number of words he used and, frankly, overused. It became, inadvertently, like the concept of Lectio Divinia. I began to wonder if I ought to try reading the same author for a few books at a time. There's always the question of which author to pick, but that's never been an issue. There are numerous series of books, by mystery and other genres, that can easily fill up a reading list.

So, do y'all read the same author back-to-back? If yes, I imagine it's because you enjoy the author's works. But I'm a bit more interested in why you might not do this?

App of the Week: __________ [fill in the blank]

I received my iPad this week...and promptly filled it with apps that I can use to read. I have my writing apps already loaded, the Mario Batali app, and a few games. So, for those of y'all out there with iPads, what are some of your favorite apps?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Short People

By Russel D McLean

I’ve just finished judging a short story competition in aid of the brilliant Million for a Morgue charity. I’m sure I’ve mentioned them before, but if I haven’t you should know that they are raising money for a great cause – to create a centre for forensic excellence in my adopted city of Dundee.*

It got me thinking about short stories. It’s no secret that I started out as a short story writer, and if you’ll forgive me a moment of indulgence, I’ll mention that I have a collection of some of those shorts out now in ebook form (go to my blog and check the sidebar if you’re interested - - I’m not doing the shill thing here – and let’s not forget there are two DSD short story collections out there, too) and that looking back on those stories I’m pretty impressed at my younger self’s ability to craft a good short.

Because it’s not an easy thing.

You’d think it would be. Unlike a novel, you don’t have to fill pages and pages. But in a sense that makes it more difficult. A novel gives you more leeway to breathe and relax. Which is great, but sometimes when you’re relaxed, you’re less likely to be focussed. With a short story, every word counts. Anything loose has to be cut.

And its tough to say in ten words what some novellists would say in around ten thousand. A picture may paint a thousand words, but in a short story you’ve only got those thousand to paint a hundred pictures and then add the dialogue as well.

To paraphrase Philip K Dick, you could open a novel at any page and chances are the characters aren’t doing anything interesting. But in a short story they have to be doing something. They don’t have the time not to.

And that’s tough to keep up.

That doesn’t mean short stories are all wham-bam tales of action. “Action” is an often misinterpreted word. Physical action and mental action can be equally thrilling as long as we are witnessing our characters doing something.

Some of the worst shorts I’ve ever read talk about things and never show them happening. They say, “There was this person, this was their life and this is what happened”. I’d rather fill in the gaps and be shown a moment, asked to make up my mind what happened around it.

In a short story, you learn about how to create shortcuts to character. You learn how to paint a picture, how to convey an emotion, in a few dynamic words. You learn about the value of implication over explication. You realise what your limitatations are as writer.

And you learn to overcome them.

Writing short stories is tough. I’ve seen established novelists who utterly fail when they try and write shorter fiction. Because it just isn’t easy. Because you can’t afford to waste time. Because you need to drive the heart of your story in only a few thousand words. You can’t mess about. You have to know what you’re writing about, what it is you have to say, what it is you want to convey. And you need to hit the reader slap-bang between the eyes with it.

The best short stories hit you hard and leave you reeling. They’re the literary equivalent of a sock in the jaw. You’re left reeling, but only later do you realise how much more there was to the experience than you realised, that it was a fuller and more intense experience than it seemed at the time. The best short stories linger.

The best short stories will leave their mark on you. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

*I’m not a native Dundonian, but I’ve been here over a decade now

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Cover Me

By Jay Stringer

It seems like I'm spending a lot of time lately echoing the sentiments of our very own Joelle. Though we write with different voices, I have long thought we seem to have similar instincts as writers. Recently she talked of the difference between being a writer and an author. The transformation that takes place as your words on a page come closer to being a product that others will spend money on.

The last few months has seen me learning all of this for the first time; publisher conference calls, line edits, copy edits, release dates (oh, we have a release date, did I not tell you?) and cover treatments.

As a writer, I know what I want. I have instincts, and I have a growing understanding of craft -something we will only ever be learning, never mastering- and they help me to know what I want on the page. I know what I want to say, and I have an increasing idea of how I want to say it. But as an author, I'm learning there's a lot I don't really think of about my own work.

One of the first things to happen is the publisher will ask you to fill in some kind of form, something that will be passed on to the promotional team and the art department, in which you lay out what you feel your book is about and what you'd like the cover to be. That document is essentially a passport application form for your book's future identity. What I learned was this; I suck at that. World's best Agent could attest to this. I can't sum up my book. I told the joke at the time that, "if I could sum up my book in two sentences, I wouldn't have written the book." And for me as a writer, that's totally valid. For me as an author, that's something I need to learn.

And the other aspect that caught me by surprise was the Cover art. It wasn't until I had people from a publishers asking me what kind of cover I wanted that I gave any thought at all to the idea that OLD GOLD would have a cover. The book is the characters, their emotions, their challenges and their desires. Never did I think about what package that would be in. As an author, these are things you need to be thinking of when you have those conversations.

You need to have an identity in mind for the book.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

In A More Just World: Women's Fiction vs Lit Fic

By Steve Weddle

I do not know Meg Wolitzer. I have never met her, nor have I read her books. I have no reason to believe that she isn't a remarkably nice person. And I hate to be disagreeable.

But she wrote an article called “The Second Shelf” that ran in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

See, literary fiction is placed on the first shelf, almost all men, though there are a few women who sneaked in last century. (More on that later.)

Women’s fiction is placed on the second shelf.

Here’s where she gets rolling:

Recently at a social gathering, when a guest found out I was a writer, he asked, “Would I have heard of you?” I dutifully told him my name — no recognition, fine, I’m not that famous — and then, at his request, I described my novels. “You know, contemporary, I guess,” I said. “Sometimes they’re about marriage. Families. Sex. Desire. Parents and children.” After a few uncomfortable moments he called his wife over, announcing that she, who “reads that kind of book,” was the one I ought to talk to. When I look back on that encounter, I see a lost opportunity. When someone asks, “Would I have heard of you?” many female novelists would be tempted to answer, “In a more just world.”

She’s at a party and a man is nice enough to ask her about her writing. She doesn't say whether she asked him what he does. What she does mention is that he went to the trouble to engage her in a conversation about her work. How unlike the people I meet at parties. The people who drone on and on about themselves and their children. "I only escaped to tell thee about how little Ricky is in the top percentile of shoe-tying six-year olds."

So when Mr. Niceman asks about her books, she describes her novels as being about families and marriage, parents and children.

Now, let’s just take a look at that for a second.

What do you write about? 
I write about marriages and families.
Are you a woman?

Now let’s look at it this way.

What do you write about?
I write about people who find themselves in tough situations and fight to get out. I write about the struggles people face just trying to get by. I write about life in conflict.
Are you a man?

Seems to me the difference is in the describing.

Raymond Carver wrote about marriages and adultery and children and families. As did William Faulkner.  As did Hemingway. Hell, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis type away about families all the day long. But their books aren’t “about families and children.”

Look at Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. That’s a book about economic situations and the necessity of compromise, isn’t it?

I suppose it’s true that women tend to enjoy reading “about marriages” more than men do, but marriage is often just the setting for the conflict, isn’t it?

I’m sure Meg Wolitzer knows this. She seems smart enough. As she mentions in her essay, she “took semiotics back at Brown University.” (Now, being from the South, I’m not terribly familiar with Brown University, but from her context I figured out that it meant she was smart. Anyway, I Googled it and, according to the internet, Brown is a very good school for people who can’t get into Harvard or Yale.)

But back to the point.

Describing your book as being about marriage is likely to provoke the kind of response the nice man at the party had. His wife likes reading about marriages.

Maybe he would like reading a darkly comic story about the publication of a sex manual, about how the lives of the author’s children fell apart and how they’re managing now that the book is about to be reissued.

I could see that as a hilarious Martin Amis book. Or Nicholson Baker. Turns out, it’s a Meg Wolitzer book, The Position. Yes, THAT Meg Wolitzer. About the book, one Amazon reviewer says:

Meg Wolitzer is a master storyteller. In her hands, the lives of these six people are realistically interwoven and absolutely fascinating. A subtle mystery --- how exactly did the Mellow marriage end? --- threads through the plot. 

Publisher’s Weekly said:

If the characters are rather stock, and the musings on love, sex and family familiar, Wolitzer nevertheless bestows her trademark warmth and light touch on this tale of social and domestic change. 

Now, up until that mention of “stock characters” and “warmth and light touch” the novel was sounding like something I might like. Now it sounds like what people dismissively call "women’s fiction." And I don't know what "domestic change" means, but it rather sounds like a matter about which I would not give one shit.

Of course, I’m not sure I understand the difference between “women’s fiction” and “literary fiction” these days.

As Meg Wolitzer said:

Exploring Amazon, I came across a category called “Women’s Fiction” where I am listed, along with Jane Austen, Sophie Kinsella, Kathryn Stockett, Toni Morrison, Danielle Steel and Louisa May Alcott. 

Tom Perrotta and Jonathan Franzen are also categorized as “women’s fiction,” she points out. She does not mention what Amazon considers “literary fiction.”

I will.

The top seller in Literary Fiction: Jodi Picoult’s Lone Wolf. Second place? The Help. Noted women's fiction author Nicholas Sparks is eleventh.

I looked for a women’s fiction category under Best Sellers, but didn’t see it.

So Jodi Picoult is tops in literary fiction. Oddly enough, the sky is still up there with the clouds.

Thinking back over books I’ve read, I know there just have to be some women authors who write what Brown University semiotics students would consider literature, right? Virginia Woolf is maybe too long ago. Sylvia Plath, maybe? Oh, what about Toni Morrison’s Beloved, one of my favorite books?

Turns out Wolitzer agrees that Toni Morrison is literary fiction. Of course, she also explains why Morrison is literary fiction while Meg Wolitzer is relegated to the “second shelf.”

But some of the most acclaimed female novelists have written unapologetically and authoritatively about women. And the environment needs to be receptive to that authority, recognizing and celebrating it in order for it to catch. It seems no coincidence that some of the most esteemed women writing today — Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Marilynne Robinson — came to prominence at an unusual moment in time when the women’s movement could be felt everywhere. Stories, long and short, and often about women’s lives, suddenly mattered to the cultural conversation. This period, the 1970s and to an extent the early ’80s, initially appeared to create an entirely different and permanent reality for female fiction writers. Men were actively interested in reading about the inner lives of women (or maybe some just pretended they were) and received moral kudos for doing so.

There you have it. Beloved came along at a time in which men were interested in reading about women. Drat. Poor timing must be to blame for the second-shelf relegation of women authors such as Meg Wolitzer. Had they only been writing in the 1970s, these poor women would be on the first shelf with Morrison and Oates, those beneficiaries of well-timed fertilization. You know, much as Jane Austen was writing when men pretended to care about women. Mary Shelley. Flannery O'Connor. Edith Wharton.

Poor Brown-educated Meg Wolitzer, author of nine published novels, writing a 3,000-word essay in the Sunday New York Times about how women are stuck on the second shelf. Now I haz a sadz :(

Beloved won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1988, not because men were pretending to be interested in women. Beloved won, and is still read, because it is amazing, insightful literature, a piece of art that does not suffer from stock characters or a light, warm touch. Beloved is brutal and beautiful, an accomplishment of  style and substance we’re all privileged to read. And yet, this a book so full of cultural significance, so astute in its treatment of the human condition, of love, of marriage, parents and children, that it will be read as long as people have eyes to see. Yes, there is marriage in this book. But if you were to ask Toni Morrison what she writes about, I don’t think she’d say she writes “about marriage.”

Everyone reading Nicholas Sparks or Jodi Picoult or Suzanne Collins would have read Toni Morrison -- you know, in a more just world.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Taken by Robert Crais

The best Elvis Cole/Joe Pike novels focus on their friendship. LA Requiem was a gem, digging deep into the past of the two heroes, finally shedding a light on some of Pike's past.

Now comes TAKEN, the most recent novel by Robert Crais, digs that hole deeper and what comes of it is the best Crais novel since The Watchman--perhaps even Two Minute Rule. The set-up is this: Elvis Cole is asked to find a college aged girl, daughter of an illegal immigrant, who's disappeared. Cole quickly discovers she's been taken by a Syrian who wants to sell illegal immigrants back to their families. And then, during his investigation, Cole is taken as well.

And only one man can find him: Joe Pike.

The book cleverly ratchets up suspense early, by playing with time a bit--centering on Pike's search before we even read about Cole's abduction. Each part of the book is a count up to the time Cole is taken.

But, as with the best Pike novels, we learn more about Pike's devotion to Cole. We see it in Pike's simple one word bits of dialogue. And we see it in his actions, when Pike goes to Cole's apartment.

The book is fast paced and action packed. If you've followed the series, you can't miss this one.


Meanwhile, Kindle owners, my own thriller Witness to Death is free for the next two days. Check it out!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Why I decided to publish Cuffs by Matthew C Funk

Cuffs by Matthew C Funk is the third story in the Speedloader anthology, the first release of Snubnose Press. Last year when I interviewed him as part of the Conversations with the Bookless series I said the following:

Matthew Funk is one of my favorite writers out there on the short fiction scene. There is a select group of writers that I will drop everything to go read something new of and his name is among them. More broadly he is one of the premier stylists working in crime short fiction right now.

A year later I still stand by all of that. I count myself among the many who are eagerly awaiting Funk to be published.

So when it came time to invite writers to send me a story for Speedloader Funk was a no-brainer, of course I was going to ask him.

Cuffs is probably one of the tensest stories that I've read in a long time. The reader stays in Darrell's, the protagonist, shoes the whole time and feels every inch of his fear, confusion and frustration.

He lowered the phone. The car behind him was close. It was wide and low and so dark Darrell could only make its shape out of the night as a nervous field of ricochet rain.

Even at a word level I appreciate his writing. How the softer sounds of "nervous field" get hammered by the harsh sound of "ricochet rain" which foreshadows the doom about to come.

One of things that I really like with this story is that it succeeds on a microcosmic and a macro-cosmic level. On a micro level it has a clear beginning and a clear end, so the story itself feel complete. But, on a macro level, there is still a broader world and actions that are only hinted at. The effect that this creates is simultaneously satisfaction and wanting more.

Cuffs is filled with great characters, subtle characterization, a suspenseful air of doom and top notch writing. That's why I decided to publish Cuffs.

Currently Reading: Submissions for Snubnose; A Death in Mexico by Jonathan Woods; The Hunger Games trilogy.

Currently Listening: One of my favorite songs being played on the radio right now is Low Fuel Drug Run by 7Horse.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Ready? Set? Juggle!

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Most of us get into the writing gig because we want to…well, you know….write. That makes sense. Right? Writers write. End of story.

Well, not exactly. At some point it is the dream of many if not most writers to make the leap from one who writes to one who is published. The day I made that leap from a writer with a manuscript to writer with a published novel, was the day I had to stop thinking of myself as just a writer. Suddenly, I was an author.

What’s the difference between the two, you ask? Ha! Well, to me the two have huge differences in the scope of the work involved. Let me show you:

A writer

1) writes
2) rewrites
3) edits
4) writes some more

An author

1) writes
2) rewrites
3) revises
4) submits
5) does edits
6) networks
7) does copy edits
8) proofs typeset pages
9) answers lots of e-mails
10) deals with promotion
11) files taxes (oy! I hate that one!)
12) is told how cool their job is on days they want to hide under the bed
13) deals with cover art (which thankfully, I only have so much say in because I can’t draw a decent stick figure)
14) etc…etc…etc…

The day I shifted from writer to author was the day I went from a writer to a business person. Suddenly, half the time I spent “writing” was spent on the business of writing instead of just the creation of words on the page. Which meant I needed more time to spend on writing. Funny how that works. It also meant I needed to improve my multi-tasking skills. It used to be I started one project, worked on said project until I reached the end, edited said project and polished it again before I put it to the side and started the next. I was a one project at a time kind of girl. This week, I’ve worked on writing on my second YA novel INDEPENDENT STUDY, wrote a prequel short story for THE TESTING for my YA editor, had a three hour meeting with a publicist, edited page proofs for Murder For Choir, did taxes, started organizing a panel for an event I’ll be attending, worked on brainstorming ideas for release events, send a few e-mails to authors I love asking them if they’d blurb my book, exchanged lots of e-mails with editors and my agent and fellow authors and wrote some blog posts. Phew!

Trust me when I say I love being an author. I love writing books, meeting readers and other authors and learning about the strange and ever changing world of publishing. But it is a job. And like any job there are days I am overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work that is in front of me. On those days, I remind myself how lucky I am to be doing this gig and try not to panic as I work through the to-do list and attempt to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Because, face it, I wouldn’t give up this job for anything.

So, for those of you reading this post – tell me – do you think being a writer and being an author are two different thing? If so, what are the differences you see and if not – why not?