Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Man Who Invented Christmas: A Book Review

Scott D. Parker

(Yesterday was my birthday [saw "Frozen" and really enjoyed it] and I don't say that to automatically solicit wishes. I say that because I didn't have much time to think up a new post. But we're in the Christmas season and my thoughts always return to Charles Dickens. I mentioned the new book I received that shows that actual 1843 manuscript. Now, I'm going to post a book review I wrote a couple of years ago about that time in Dickens's life: the fall of 1843 when he wrote his most famous story. Enjoy.)

One hundred and seventy years ago this month, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. A few years ago (2008), Les Standiford published The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits. Standiford, a novelist and popular historian, fully acknowledges that much of what he has compiled in The Man Who Invented Christmas is available in other works and biographies. The beauty of this little book is the prism with which Standiford examines Dickens. It’s only about the Carol and how Dickens came to write it, the influences, where Dickens was in his life when the inspiration for Scrooge, Marley, and Tiny Tim struck his imagination, the immediate aftermath of the book’s publication, and its influence on western culture.

The book opens on 5 October 1843. Dickens, aged thirty-one, is on a Manchester stage, part of a fundraiser for the Manchester Athenaeum. He is to speak but he is distracted. His current novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, was not finding the dazzling sales figures of earlier novels like The Pickwick Papers or The Old Curiosity Shop. Not a Dickens scholar I, this fact surprised me. I just assumed Dickens’s stardom, once attained, didn’t wane during his lifetime. It was up and down for Dickens and in October 1843, Dickens was down. With sales figures dropping, his own debt rising—including his parents’ debt which he took pains to absolve—and a new child, his fifth, due early in 1844, Dickens needed to do something extraordinary in order to get back on the financial horse.

After he gave his part of the fundraiser, Dickens walked the dark streets of Manchester and the germ of an idea planted itself in his mind. With the memories of a recent trip to a “ragged school”—a school for poor kids—fresh in his mind, Dickens did something fascinating: he examined himself, as an artist, a man, a husband, and found that he could improve his position. According to Standiford, “Perhaps he [Dickens] had let his disappointment with America in particular and with human nature in general overwhelm his powers of storytelling and characterization in his recent work—perhaps he had simply taken it for granted that an adoring public would sit still for whatever he offered it.” The Chuzzlewit sales and themes proved this to be true. He tried to beat his readers over the head with his earnestness and the readers let him know they didn’t like it. He needed a different method to convey what he wanted to convey. And he needed it to be entertaining.

A Christmas Carol was the result. We all know the story so I don’t need to retell it here. But what is utterly compelling when you stop to think about it is that Dickens went through a transformation not unlike Scrooge, just without the ghosts. At a time when he could have moved to Europe, contented himself with travel writing, and cleared his debts, he chose to challenge himself. To do so, he needed to change. So he changed how he approached this book and its publication. I wonder how many of us have the courage to do that in our own lives to say nothing of something as public as a novel.

With numerous quotes from Dickens’ own writings and those of his contemporaries, Standiford shows us how excited Dickens became at his “little Carol,” how it cheered him, made his cry, and, presumably, warmed his heart as the book has done these past 169 years for the rest of us. The haggling, the negotiations, the business of writing, producing, securing the artwork, and all the other minutia needed to publish a book in 1843 is captivating. You realize that, in many ways, it’s the same then as it is now. The most paradoxical thing I learned was Dickens’ decision to publish A Christmas Carol on his own. You what that means, don’t you? A Christmas Carol was a vanity book. A self-published book.

As far as the claim that Dickens “invented” Christmas (Prince Albert also had a hand with his Christmas trees), Standiford goes into some good detail on how the celebration of Christmas had devolved to a holiday that was barely celebrated. He needs to do this and lay out for the reader where Christmas was in 1843 in order for the reader to understand the profound impact the Carol had on society. Christmas, for Dickens had the same enchanting power over him that his story has over us. That’s ironic considering the humiliation of his childhood—of having a father in debtors’ prison and being forced to leave school and work in a factory to help the family—made Christmas for Dickens not the overabundant thing it is today. The season of Christmas “accounts in large part for his development as an artist.” As Dickens himself wrote, “Any iron ring let into stone is the entrance to a cave which only waits for the magician, and the little fire, and the necromancy, that will make the earth shake.” There is a certain magic during this time of year and Dickens captured it between pages. It’s no wonder the story has thrived.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a charming book, uncluttered with footnotes so it’s easy to read. (Standiford cites his sources at the back of the book.) The book contains just over 200 pages so it won’t take you many hours to read it. I recommend it for anyone with a little curiosity about how a great work of literature came about. It’ll remove the gauzy trappings that can sometimes surround a book—you know, the awe we writers and readers impose on great works of literature, how the author must’ve been touched by a literary god and the work just fell from the pen—and reveal a real man who experienced real worries but also created something special by means of his own imagination, sweat, determination, and perseverance. It’s a good lesson for all of us.

For all you writers out there, think about this. Where we you this year on 5 October? Imagine not having a word written in a new work. Imagine, now, getting that idea and you burn the midnight oil—you still have a day job, don’t forget—and finish a manuscript by the end of November and the book you just wrote is published today [i.e., 17 December]. Think you could do it?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Why We Published a Story about Child Abuse

Guest Post from Chris Rhatigan

Mike Monson and I run a crime fiction magazine, All Due Respect. Like every other magazine out there, we have submission guidelines. 

You know the drill—what genres we’re looking for, how many words, how much we pay, etc.

But we don’t specify any boundaries in terms of content.

What I see at many other magazines is something along these lines: no graphic violence/sex, no animal abuse, no child abuse.

We’re a crime fiction magazine, so we’re obviously cool with graphic violence and sex. But some other magazines in closely related genres won’t consider stories about child abuse. 

I understand why. Stories about child abuse make people uncomfortable. A lot of readers want to escape the pain/boredom/frustration of everyday life—and stories about abuse don’t provide that experience.


So Mike and I are evaluating submissions for the first issue. He tells me about one from a writer friend of his, Renee Asher Pickup. Says it gives him chills. Asks me if I want to see it.

Of course, I want to see it.

Renee sends the story, “Amanda Will Be Fine.” It’s the most straightforward, agonizing, brutal depiction of child abuse that I’ve read. The way the last line echoes long after you’ve finished reading the story—it’s haunting.

I don’t feel comfortable reading it. I don’t escape anything.

It also exceeds our requirements in almost every way—sharp writing, clear plotting, real characters. 

We accept the story immediately. 

This story accomplishes exactly what it set out to do: the reader experiences a sliver of the pain that the narrator experiences. 

And this kind of story is why a magazine like All Due Respect exists. If the story is about crime and if it rings true, we want to publish it; we want to tell the world about it. 

Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock put restrictions on their content—and that’s fine for them. 

We’re the place for fiction without limits.

Chris Rhatigan the managing editor of All Due Respect. 
The magazine’s first issue is available at Amazon and Amazon UK.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Just shut up and tell me a story

By Steve Weddle

The first ebook I read was a Nelson Demille John Corey novel. I'd been reading the paperback, but found myself at work, nearly on lunch, without the book. So I went to Fictionwise or one of those sites, downloaded the file, then synced it up with my Palm Pilot.  I hadn't had any reason to read an ebook before. Once I did, I was hooked. And now that you can get ebooks on a Kobo app through your local indie, that's just even cooler.

When a friend of mine and I drove cross-country after undergraduate, we got a box of CDs from a truck stop, listened to a Star Trek book (probably Imzadi) through Idaho, Wyoming, a little further along the road with that giant Crazy Horse through the window, and returned the box of CDs to another truck stop in the state of Iowa, where people were terrible, not nice, and awful. (Thanks, Iowa.)

I enjoyed listening to the book on CD, and now, 20 years later, still listen to books in the car. But it has to be the right book.

The other day I was listening to Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (pictured). I'd loved the Wolves book she'd written and have read those stories quite a few times. I own the Vampires book, but hadn't had a chance to read it. So I snagged the audio at the library. What a dumb idea.

See, I love the way she writes. The sentences.  I like to see the way she puts a story together. Doing her book on audio was like listening to a Rembrandt. I was doing it all wrong. I wasn't getting what she was doing.

One day long ago I started a Dan Brown book. I've explained on this blog somewhere how I think he is a good storyteller, though not what we'd call a writer. I mean, I've re-read a Dan Brown sentence, but not for the same reason I re-read a Karen Russell sentence. I don't think this would come as news to Dan Brown or his 174-million fans. And believe me, Mr. Brown cares as much about what I think of his sentences as I care about that farting dog nine houses over.

I've found that I can't listen to just any audio book. I do well with non-fiction, because I feel as if I'm learning something and don't give two poops about the sentences themselves. I care about the overall story of how the Mona Lisa was stolen or salt became so popular.

I'm listening now to Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation. It's jumpy in the right spots. It has humor. It has that learning stuff. For me, it's the perfect kind of book to listen to while I drive to work.

Tell me a story. Drop some learning on me. Just. please, while I'm driving down the road, don't distract me too much. Don't make me want to pull over, hit the 30-second refresh button, and listen again to that line you just sculpted, that beautiful line about seeing the future of our lives hanging like a lemon from a tree. Just not that kind of writing. Good grief. I have to get to work on time, you know?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How Low Do You Go?

By Holly West

Hello there.

Since I’m new here, I suppose a quick introduction is in order. My name is Holly West and I write historical crime fiction. My debut novel, Mistress of Fortune, comes out on February 3, 2014 from Carina Press and as you can imagine, I’m très excited.

I'd also like to thank Steve Weddle for asking me to be a part of this group.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get right down to it. Last week, Steve posted about review etiquette, specifically, whether to thank, or otherwise acknowledge, reviewers. If you haven’t yet, take a look at that discussion as it’s rather thought provoking.

Reviewing has been on my mind lately, albeit from a different perspective. Here's my question: As an author, should I be writing reviews?

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. I may be a writer, but I was a reader first. Of course I should be writing reviews and rating books! After all, this is one of the best--and easiest--ways to support my fellow authors.

In fact, it wasn’t so long ago that I had no issue with writing book reviews. I happily participated on Good Reads and posted Amazon reviews, and took great joy in sharing my opinions on books with anyone who would listen. And I still have no problem with sharing my opinions about the books I like. I regularly recommend them on Twitter, Facebook, and my blog. Essentially, my dilemma is with the rating system.

I recently purchased What to do Before You Launch by M.J. Rose and Randy Susan Meyers. I haven’t had a chance to look at much of it so I can’t speak to the quality of all of the advice just yet, but I did read something that struck me:
Don’t write negative reviews of books, or give any book less than 5 stars, unless you’re willing to receive the same.
I knowingly gave up the luxury of writing negative reviews almost as soon as I started writing. It seemed kind of obvious that I wouldn't want to do anything that could be perceived as bad mouthing other authors. A bad review of a particular book might be justified, but it's not worth it to me.

But what about those 4-star reviews? Early on, I made a "policy" never to give any book less than 4. If I didn't feel it deserved that, I didn't rate it at all. In my own personal rating scale, 5-star books are the ones I've loved for years, the ones I've read over and over or resonated strongly with me for one reason or another. Truly, there's only a handful of books that hold that rank for me.

If I rate a book 4 stars, it means that I loved it, that it deserves high praise and gets my sincere recommendation. I've rated many books 4 stars in the last few years, but even as I did it, I wondered if the recipients might take it as a slight. After all, how are they to know my criteria for rating books? Over time, I started rating most books as 5 stars, then, feeling conflicted, I stopped rating books altogether.

I'm curious if any other authors struggle with this? Have you continued writing reviews and rating books after getting published? Do you ever give less than a 5-star rating? If you've received a 4-star rating from a fellow author, how do you feel about it?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Looking at You, 2014

Over at River City Reading, the vision is set for 2014.

Goodreads has pages of UPCOMING 2014 lists already.

Tomorrow, we're joined by new-DSDer Holly West, whose debut drops in 2014.

2014. 2014.

2013, we hardly knew ya.

So, are you looking forward to any 2014 books? Do you have a book coming out in 2014?

Monday, December 2, 2013

No Risk, No Reward

Yes, that title could apply to Black Friday shopping!  However, I've been thinking about this a lot in terms of writing lately.

In the last few years, for me, the focus has been on practicality.  Bills stacking up, personal matters requiring attention to the point of becoming all-consuming at times.  Writing seemed like an indulgence.  A luxury that I couldn't afford or justify.

I balanced the practicalities with tutoring and editorial/critique services, and occasionally pulled together enough time to work on a project or polish something off.  I went with sure things instead of labors of love so that I could justify the investments of my time.

Through tutoring, I eventually taught myself the biggest lesson that anyone could take away from a writing course.  In the end, the only way you will succeed in this business is if you step out on your own.  Nobody inherits the family business of writing.  In the end, readers will decide what's great and what's garbage, and no matter whether you get an editor on sub 1 or sub 331, you still have to satisfy the reading public.

So many writers play it safe.  They cling to the security of their amateur writing group.  They hang with those who talk about trying to write, but don't actually do it.  They dabble with something and call it done, but won't submit to editors and agents.  They like the idea of writing.

Some like the idea of someone carrying them, and think they'll be handed a golden ticket so they don't have to take any chances on their own.

In the end, it's down to you and the keyboard and the ideas you execute.  There are no sure things, no guarantees.  You have to step out, on your own, and take the plunge.  If you're working without an editor or agent, that means again and again and again, until the project is completed.  Even if you have editors and agents you work with already, you work alone, with the added pressure of trying to satisfy the people who invest in you and your work.

I was thinking about cutting the cord of my safety nets, stepping away from the regular paying jobs, and getting back to what I love.  Even with some successes behind you, there are always risks and fears.

But no risk, no reward.  For some, that means stepping away from a loved, successful series character.  For others, it means bringing a hugely successful series to an end.  This year, I've had a few firsts, including stepping outside my genre, and what it's taught me is that every risk I take brings a bigger payoff in the end than you can measure just in dollar signs, because it's inspired me to take different risks that pay off with work I might not have produced otherwise.

Don't pull your punches.  And don't play it safe.  The only way you'll ever know what you're capable of is if you step out on your own.  Take the risks today.  It may take years, but eventually, you'll reap the rewards.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The fun of holiday shopping

by: Joelle Charbonneau

I am not a big "shopper".  Going to the mall has never rung my bell.  Not now.  Not when I was a teen.  Nope.  Not me.  All my clothes basically come from one store because I know what sizes fit.  That means I can run in, try stuff on and leave with what I need all in under forty-five minutes.  Huzzah!

But while I don't love going out to shop, I like online shopping even less.  Oh - I get the convenience of it.  There is something wonderful about pushing a button and having something arrive at the door without the need to fight crowds or stand in lines.  But there is something about shopping online that feels limiting to me.

How can that be, you ask?  After all, the inventory of the entire retail universe is sprawled across the internet.  It's not like there aren't options to be had.

Yes, that's true.  There are options.  Lots and lots and LOTS of them.  But browsing online isn't much fun for me.  And this weekend, I remembered why.

Yesterday was small business Saturday.  In the book world, elves in the guise of authors went to local bookstores and helped hand sell books to patrons.  I dropped in on Anderson's Bookshop as a surprise elf and spent several hours putting some of my favorite books in the hands of holiday shoppers.  In the process, I managed to accumulate a huge pile of Christmas gifts that I can't wait to give to the readers in my life.

I didn't intend on buying anything today.  And I certainly didn't know before hand that I wanted those items as gifts.  While browsing the shelves, I was struck by how much "X" would like this book or how "Y" would enjoy a specific present.  I read back jacket copy, admired beautifully illustrated pages and got excited about knowing I had found the perfect gift for someone I care about.

It's that experience--flipping through pages, browsing through racks of clothes or nicknacks or whatever--that is missing from the internet shopping experience for me.  I like being able to walk into a store with the people I love firmly in my mind and seeing things I never knew existed but I feel are the perfect fit for them.  There is something that feels more personal about the whole gift giving experience when I buy the gifts in person. Maybe I'm strange in this, but it doesn't make it any less true.  And as an added bonus, I get to know that the money I'm spending is flowing into my community.  Which makes me happy, too.

Does that mean I'm anti-internet shopping?  Nope.  I get why it's popular and why people love doing it.  But this weekend, I not only got to find some perfect gifts for those on my holiday list, I was able to be a part of helping others find gifts for those they love.  How cool is that?

So, this all makes me wonder...are you the type that likes to shop on line or are there other crazy people like me who need to see things in person in order to know if they are the perfect gift?  Internet or in store shopping?  I have to know!