Saturday, February 11, 2017

The (Irritating) Pursuit of Perfection

Scott D. Parker

“We the Writers, in order to form a more perfect manuscript…

Aren’t you glad there’s no Constitution for writing? More to the point, aren’t you glad there’s not a preamble with a phrase like that, huh?

This week, I ran into the brick wall that is the sometimes insatiable desire to be perfect when we write, especially first drafts. I’m trying something unique this month with my current novel: I’m 98% pantsing this story. I have only a vague idea of what’s gonna happen and how it ends. Surprisingly, I’m finding it rather liberating, except for Wednesday. During that morning’s writing session, I didn’t have a clue as what to write. Oh, I kept going and I found my way, but it was a slog. It was one of the few times where I really felt the 4:30am wake up time. To compensate, I just drank more coffee.

And kept writing.

You see, the more I typed, the more I wrote. The more I wrote, the more I allowed my creative voice to take over. The more the creative voice took over, the more the story—in the form of that particular chapter—worked itself out. By the time my 5:30am alarm went off—signaling my hard stop as I have to get ready for work—I wanted to keep going.

I realized later that what was holding me back was the unconscious desire to make the prose perfect. This is a first draft, after all. Since I’m pantsing this novel, I am telling myself the story. How in the world am I supposed to craft something perfect when I don’t even know how it all turns out. That’s for later drafts and edits. First, how the heck does my hero get out of this chapter? I threw in a bandit with a gun and the action started up again.

Do you ever get slapped with the desire for perfection? I know I do. It’s a difficult beast to overcome.
Two blog posts this week helped me work through this irritating trait we writers have.

One is by Dean Wesley Smith.

The other is by Dana King.

Both are worth your time as you’ll likely get something out of each that you can add to your mental toolbox.

BTW, Have you ever wondered what a Bruce Springsteen song written for the first Harry Potter movie sounds like? I never even knew this was a thing. The always excellent Ultimate Classic Rock dropped this little ditty yesterday. It definitely didn't fit the film, but upon hearing it three consecutive times, I quite like “I’ll Stand by You Always.”

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Are you a snowflake?

It would appear that publishers are protecting us. I don't know what we'd do without them.

I don't know what's weirder -- that they're protecting readers or second-guessing writers. Or protecting themselves. I don't even know what's happening anymore. We have "culture experts" now? OK.

Some publishing houses provide their own sensitivity readers, particularly in genres—such as young adult literature—where the industry feels protective of its audience. Stacy Whitman, who helms the middle-grade imprint of Lee & Low Books, explained that on most manuscripts her team consults a plexus of “cultural experts” they’ve discovered through “networking and research.” The responses flow back to the author “as part of the editorial process,” and each reader earns a modest honorarium. (The site Writing in the Margins recommends $250 per manuscript as a starting fee.) MORE>>

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

January Reading Round Up

by Holly West

Pursuant to my resolution to review every book I read this year, I'd like to report that January was a stellar reading month for me. So much so that I increased my reading challenge goal from thirty-five to fifty books, and even so, I'm two books ahead of schedule. I'll likely slow down a little as the year progresses but if January is any indication, it's going to be a great reading year.

Here's are some of my favorites:

AT RISK by S.G. Redling

Publisher's Description:
Colleen McElroy grew up wealthy and pampered, the daughter of a prominent society family in Lexington, Kentucky. But her privileged upbringing could not prepare or protect her from her cruel and abusive first husband. Although her calamitous marriage left her with physical and emotional scars that have yet to heal, they haven’t prevented her from doing her best to rebuild her life.

Charismatic Patrick McElroy has scars of his own from his traumatic childhood in the foster care system, but with his business partner, John, he has built a celebrated, state-of-the-art home for at-risk youths. When one goes missing, Colleen is plunged into a nightmare of uncertainty about the girl’s disappearance. Is she paranoid, seeing disasters where there is just bad luck, or does an unspeakable evil lurk behind the new life she’s made for herself? No longer sure of whom she can trust, Colleen will have to rely on herself to discover the truth.

My review: 
I really enjoyed this book! I saw S.G. read at a Noir at the Bar several years ago and was impressed but this is the first of her novels I've read. Fast-paced and really well-drawn characters. No spoilers but the ending left me a little breathless (a good thing). Good stuff and I look forward to reading more by S.G. Redling.

(Hey, I warned you I wasn't great at writing reviews. But from now on, I won't let that stop me from introducing you to books I like).


Publisher's Description:
Everyone knows a couple like Jack and Grace. He has looks and wealth; she has charm and elegance. He's a dedicated attorney who has never lost a case; she is a flawless homemaker, a masterful gardener and cook, and dotes on her disabled younger sister. Though they are still newlyweds, they seem to have it all. You might not want to like them, but you do. You re hopelessly charmed by the ease and comfort of their home, by the graciousness of the dinner parties they throw. You d like to get to know Grace better.

But it's difficult, because you realize Jack and Grace are inseparable.

Some might call this true love. Others might wonder why Grace never answers the phone. Or why she can never meet for coffee, even though she doesn't work. How she can cook such elaborate meals but remain so slim. Or why she never seems to take anything with her when she leaves the house, not even a pen. Or why there are such high-security metal shutters on all the downstairs windows.

Some might wonder what's really going on once the dinner party is over, and the front door has closed.

My review:
This book might be classified as a beach read, but there's a good reason for that--in spite of its subject matter (a wife being held prisoner by her "perfect" husband)--it's compelling and hard-to-put-down. Though it skirts the edge of reality, it's believable enough to be creepy/scary and oh, so good. Glad I listened to my sister's recommendation to read it.

Publisher's Description:
Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning and night. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She's even started to feel like she knows them. Jess and Jason, she calls them. Their life--as she sees it--is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.
And then she sees something shocking. It's only a minute until the train moves on, but it's enough. Now everything's changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel goes to the police. But is she really as unreliable as they say? Soon she is deeply entangled not only in the investigation but in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?

My review:
I really enjoyed this book, and have little criticism of it. At times, I found Rachel to be a tedious character (it was sometimes tiresome to be in her head) but overall, I thought she was an interesting character. I wonder if telling the story through three characters (Rachel, Megan, and Anna) was truly necessary, and if it might've been stronger w/out Anna's input, but then again, her realizations did ultimately make for a more compelling story.

Publisher's Description:
How far will you go to achieve a dream? That's the question a celebrated coach poses to Katie and Eric Knox after he sees their daughter Devon, a gymnastics prodigy and Olympic hopeful, compete. For the Knoxes there are no limits--until a violent death rocks their close-knit gymnastics community and everything they have worked so hard for is suddenly at risk.

As rumors swirl among the other parents, Katie tries frantically to hold her family together while also finding herself irresistibly drawn to the crime itself. What she uncovers--about her daughter's fears, her own marriage, and herself--forces Katie to consider whether there's any price she isn't willing to pay to achieve Devon's dream.

My review:
Of Megan Abbott's last few novels, DARE ME was my favorite. But YOU WILL KNOW ME might've beat it. Set in the competitive world of girls' gymnastics, it's a gradual uncovering of uncomfortable, then horrible, and finally, unthinkable truths, and how we manage to convince ourselves we can live with them. I like it when, as a reader, I can relate to the characters enough to wonder what I might do in similar circumstances. How far would I go to protect the one thing that mattered most?

(h/t to Kristopher Zgorski's Bolo Books review)

Publisher's Description:
The danger isn't all in your head . . .

Growing up, Kate Priddy was always a bit neurotic, experiencing momentary bouts of anxiety that exploded into full blown panic attacks after an ex-boyfriend kidnapped her and nearly ended her life. When Corbin Dell, a distant cousin in Boston, suggests the two temporarily swap apartments, Kate, an art student in London, agrees, hoping that time away in a new place will help her overcome the recent wreckage of her life.

But soon after her arrival at Corbin's grand apartment on Beacon Hill, Kate makes a shocking discovery: his next-door neighbor, a young woman named Audrey Marshall, has been murdered. When the police question her about Corbin, a shaken Kate has few answers, and many questions of her own--curiosity that intensifies when she meets Alan Cherney, a handsome, quiet tenant who lives across the courtyard, in the apartment facing Audrey's. Alan saw Corbin surreptitiously come and go from Audrey's place, yet he's denied knowing her. Then, Kate runs into a tearful man claiming to be the dead woman's old boyfriend, who insists Corbin did the deed the night that he left for London.

When she reaches out to her cousin, he proclaims his innocence and calms her nerves . . . until she comes across disturbing objects hidden in the apartment--and accidentally learns that Corbin is not where he says he is. Could Corbin be a killer? And what about Alan? Kate finds herself drawn to this appealing man who seems so sincere, yet she isn't sure. Jet lagged and emotionally unstable, her imagination full of dark images caused by the terror of her past, Kate can barely trust herself . . . So how could she take the chance on a stranger she's just met?

Yet the danger Kate imagines isn't nearly as twisted and deadly as what's about to happen. When her every fear becomes very real.

And much, much closer than she thinks.

My review:
This book hooked me from the beginning. Who wouldn't want to escape to another country for six months, live in a great city, and bonus, a fantastic apartment? Of course, it all goes wrong, and fast. I was intrigued by the way this novel unfolded--the beginning is told from the main protagonist's POV then it kind of switches back and forth between a few people, but not in a set pattern. The first time it shifted to another POV it was just a bit jarring, but in retrospect, it was the perfect way to tell the story. I was actually sorry it ended, and wouldn't mind hearing more from these characters.

From looking at these books, there are some patterns emerging. All but one are by female authors. All of them feature vulnerable women who find themselves caught up in dangerous circumstances that demand them to dig deep in order to survive.

February's book choices have already changed this trend for me, but it's clear I have a penchant for female protagonists who many would consider to be weak (whether by nature or by circumstance) but who are nonetheless able to (spoiler alert?) save themselves. 

I have a feeling that beyond sharing the books I enjoy, I'll learn something about myself as a reader and writer by keeping track of and recording my thoughts about each book I read this year. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Aggravating Then, Good Story Material Now

I received an invitation not too long ago to contribute a private eye story to a new collection.  Now if there's one type of crime tale I love but have been hesitant to try it's the private investigator tale. I just have never been able to imagine writing one that wouldn't seem derivative of other work.  It's not that I worried everything's been done (Where in crime fiction does this not pertain?) but that in the private eye realm particularly I would wind up writing in a voice not my own.  I feared I'd only sound like I was adopting a voice derived from PI writers past and present.  Still, I wanted very much to accept the offer extended to me and come up with something suitable for the collection.    

Then it hit me.  Instead of dreaming up and concocting a hardboiled-styled mystery that I felt would come across as synthetic, manufactured, I had the perfect opportunity to use an idea I've been sitting on for about four years.    

From kindergarten through 2nd grade, my son attended a charter school in Harlem.  We live in Brooklyn, so that meant taking him an hour back and forth on the subway every day.  I've written about that daily travel grind here previously, so no need to go into that.  But the reason my wife and I were willing to put ourselves and him through that tiring routine was because the school, brand new when he started going, was the first non-private elementary school in New York City designed specifically as a French-English bilingual school.  There were public schools in New York with French-English programs within them, but this charter school in its entirety was a Francophone school, the idea being the kids could get an education akin to what you'd get at the ritzy private Lycee Francais, but for free. And the reason this was important to us is because my wife's first language is French, and from the time our son was born, she's stressed that we raise him to learn French as well as English.  No complaints from me.  The more languages you know, as far as I'm concerned, the better.

We began with such high hopes for the school.  It held huge promise.  The principal was a French woman who'd been living in the States for years, and the teachers were from France, Senegal, Djibouti, the U.S, and elsewhere.  Drop your kid off at school in the morning, and you felt you were part of a UN convention, with parents and kids from every part of the French speaking world there - Ivory Coast, Morocco, Canada, Switzerland, Mali, Haiti, and on and on.  There was also a sizable group of non-French speaking parents and students from New York City, Harlem especially.  My son has an American father and a French-Cameroonian mother and we were hardly what you'd call an unusual marital blend.  I couldn't have been more pleased with the mix of people making up the school.

Unfortunately, things didn't go as we hoped, and the school became a huge source of aggravation. Broadly speaking, there were two areas of chaos.  One involved how the school was run, which was less than competently (in the three years my son attended, the school had, if I remember, four principals), and the other had to do with the never ending squabbles among the parents.  You wouldn't believe the tensions - cultural, racial, ideological, class-related - that brewed there.  I went to countless public board meetings at the school that devolved into arguments and shouting matches among different factions.  Through all this, the teachers at the school managed to do their jobs, and some were actually excellent.  It's because of them, and the hope that somehow the school would get on track, that we stuck with it for three years.  In the end, though, my wife and I got fed up, and we feared we were doing our son a disservice by leaving him there.  We were able to transfer him out of the school to a regular public school in Manhattan, a place that had a French-English program within it.  After that, till fifth grade, it was smooth sailing, and it even felt odd to be connected to a school that didn't have a high degree of constant drama.  How absurd and maddening that drama at the charter school had been. And yet, as I told my wife and a few friends when we were going through it, "I may write a book about this place.  It's got everything.  Education issues, possible corruption, the problems that come with diversity and multiculturalism, rumors of affairs among parents...
It's a fertile area for a crime novel with lots of reasons for why a murder might have occurred."

Voila!  When I got the invitation to write the PI story, it dawned on me what I should do.  I'd never used the school material in any way. There was enough to draw on for a novel, but I realized I should use some of that three year experience for my tale.  I had the characters, the setting, the conflicts, the tone.  It didn't take long from all these ingredients to come up with a plot.  Most importantly, it felt organic, a story I could put a PI in that wouldn't feel to me like a pastiche.   I could write this PI story from the inside out, in a voice I considered my own. 

Sure enough, the writing went smoothly once I started and, rare for me, I hit no snags.  I got the story finished pretty fast.  Later this year, it'll be in the collection I mentioned.

So my point?  I'm not sure I have one.  But I do know I enjoyed writing "A Trip to School", as the story's called; I took a certain satisfaction putting on paper some of the ridiculousness that took up three years of my family's life.  From annoyance and frustration, from messiness and chaos, to the pleasure of creating a clear narrative.  That's Writing 101 really.  And who knows?  Maybe the story, just maybe, will be a dry run for that PI novel I've always been afraid to write.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Art and Life Exploding

“Better never means better for everyone…It always means worse for some.”

                                                The Commander
                                                “The Handmaid’s Tale”

Hulu’s trailer for “The Handmaid’s Tale," expected in April, dropped on Twitter and it looks amazing. Terrifying. Disturbing. Appropriate. I can’t wait.
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” Margaret Atwood’s richly visualized dystopian chronicle, takes place in the near future. Some consider it a work of Science Fiction, Good Reads lists it as such.

Others see it as speculative. Amazon, for example. Margaret Atwood stated in an interview with the Guardian, “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.”
Recently there has been renewed interest in the title as many in the US liken the story to our current political atmosphere. There are those who might even say it is or will be our reality.

The “Handmaid’s Tale” takes place after a violent overthrow of the US government by a militarized Christian extremist group. Once in control they quickly regain order by suspending the constitution and creating a police state.
The group behind the coup replaces the government with a totalitarian theocracy dedicated to creating a “better” society based on teachings from the Old Testament and the institution of a strict class system.
Minorities within the community are segregated for easier management. Women’s rights and freedoms are abruptly withdrawn. Finances seized. Employment stripped. They lose the right to vote. It becomes illegal for women to read.
Devalued, women become property and are eventually divided into classes. Marthas, a name taken from the New Testament, are domestic servants, needed for cooking and cleaning.

Wives are of a higher status, seen as care-takers of men. Examples of traditional values. However, the community is blighted with toxic pollution and rampant sexually transmitted diseases rendering many of the husbands sterile and wives infertile.

Handmaid’s, on the other hand, are still fertile women, valued only for their working wombs, assigned to elite couples unable to conceive. They are sexual slaves used to increase the birth rate. Instruments of repopulation. Bodies no longer their own.

Outrageous. Ridiculous. Impossible. Science Fiction. Or not. The greatest threat to the rights of women in “The Handmaid’s Tale” was complacency. Satisfied with their own lot, the elites allowed those below to be stripped of almost everything. When given the slightest comfort even the protagonist, although enslaved, seemed to find her life tolerable. She forgets to fight.
The story told in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is cautionary. Caught up in our own interests, we let things slip past us, things we should be watching for. The tiny cracks we almost don’t notice. As we read the story of Offred once again, maybe we take it as a warning given just in time.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Super Storytelling

Yes, it’s that day again. You’re breaking out the nacho cheese and chilling the beer and wondering if the avocados are finally ripe enough to make guacamole.
You’re getting ready to watch the Super Bowl.
If you’re lucky, you’re gearing up to watch a team that you actually root for on a regular basis. (Falcons and Patriots fans, I’m talking to you.) But if you’re like me, and the majority of Americans, your team didn’t make it this far (I’m a 49ers fan, and I DON’T want to talk about it). Or you don’t have a team, and you don’t really care about football.
So what makes people like us watch anyway?
It’s all about the story.
Will Tom Brady earn his fifth Super Bowl ring? Will the scrappy Atlanta Falcons bring down the New England dynasty? What will Lady Gaga wear during the halftime show?
People tune in because they want to know how it ends and what happens along the way. Because it’s a story.
Storytelling is everywhere. As writers, we do it every day and we’re trained to look for it everywhere. But it really is everywhere. Human beings are hard-wired to find the story, because we need to. Stories help make sense of the world around us, and usually come with the bonus of being entertaining or suspenseful or cathartic.
Sports can be all of those things. So even if you’re not a football fan, sit back and enjoy the Super Bowl story this afternoon. After all, you've already made the nachos.