Monthly Archives: January 2013

STEVE JOBS by Walter Isaacson

SteveJobsI don’ usually care for biographies, because I find them to be ponderous massive tomes. But I loved reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Even though this was not a short book at 600 pages, it was a page-turner.

 

However, the biography is not perfect. After reading the book, I went to the Amazon page and listened to all of the author videos about how he came to know and like Steve Jobs. I was surprised by how much Mr. Isaacson evidently liked Steve Jobs as much as he says he did on those videos, because when I read his biography I felt I was constantly being assailed by the negative parts of Jobs’ personality. It didn’t take me long to develop a strong dislike to Jobs based on Mr. Isaacson’s biography. Like others, I wondered why Steve Jobs was so unkind and brutal to those who worked for him. What was wrong? Did he have an untreated mental health condition like bio-polar disorder?

 

I think Walter Isaacson’s biography would have benefited greatly from more of a discussion of this issue, since Jobs’ gratuitous nastiness was such a salient feature of the  interactions he had with various people throughout his life. Four stars. A bookclub recommendation.

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Monday Craft Tip #3: Show, not tell, part 2

I don’t know about you, but I find that dictum Show, don’t tell the thorniest piece of advice about writing. It is so hard to get right. Naturally, when I started to write, I did a lot of telling. Then I got the idea that you should put things in scenes. Great! I thought in my naivete. I’ve got that nailed. Throughout 2010, my first novel kept getting rejected by agents, but they didn’t have time to tell me why. I took a writing course at the beginning of  2011, and found out that tells were ingrown into my prose style like a bad case of kudzu. So I’ve been trying to weed them out. Yesterday, I read a wonderful piece of advice about showing and telling that I hope (maybe) will finally put the whole issue to rest. (For those of you who want to look it up, you will find it in DESCRIPTION AND SETTING by Ron Rozelle, pp. 66-72.) Compare the following:

The city suffered significant damage in the blast.

The smell of death was a little fainter than the day before, but the places where the houses had collapsed into tile-covered heaps stank vilely and were covered with great, black swarms of flies.

The first sentence is clearly a tell, the sort of thing you would read in a newspaper.
The second is far more descriptive, the sort of thing you would find in a novel. Notice that the author of the second piece never tells you that the city suffered significant damage in the blast. He or she conveys this but the use of telling descriptions. Notice that I used the word telling, because (of course) the second piece is full of tells. How could it not be? But the tells pull the reader in because the content of the descriptions are powerful and they have been word-smithed by a careful choice of words.

The takeaway message?

  1. Do not make anything you write come off as a report.
  2. Choose to show more often than you tell.
  3. Remember that you will have to tell sometimes, because your novel is going to be very clunky and long if you don’t have some narrative summary.
  4. When you use tells, draw the reader in by using emotionally powerful descriptions, then seduce them by using beautifully crafted prose.

Image: British Pathe

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Friday’s Internet Goodies: Paper Mustang

No, it’s not a Mustangcar, but a website dedicated to Indie authors, which is why I’ve included it in my “internet goodies” category.

Sue Owen, Sharon Nelson and possible other reviewers aim to help Indie authors reach their audiences.

I love these sites. As an Indie author myself, I know how hard it is to reach my audience. People like Sue and Sharon provide an invaluable service to the writing community.

In addition to their prolific book reviewing, Sue and Sharon have awards for authors who do more than merely just write a novel. These people do more for human goodness than just writing and pumping out books. And so Sue and Sharon came up with their “Head to Hoof” awards, which celebrate such people, who are given a special spot on the website.

To find this charming and quirky website, please point your browser to www.papermustang.com.

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THE NIGHT WATCH by Sarah Waters

TheNightWatchI loved the concept of this book. What a clever way to write an historical novel by beginning at the end and working back to the beginning. And the metaphor of the movies was a clever setup. But what a disappointment this turned out to be.

I am a reader who has enjoyed three of Ms. Waters’ previous novels, TIPPING THE VELVET, AFFINITY and my favorite, FINGERSMITH. So I was surprised to find that I really couldn’t keep going after about page 340, in the middle of the middle section set in 1944. So what went wrong?

First of all, the writing was far too static. The tension in the novel was simply not milked for all it was worth. The character I found most interesting was Duncan, the troubled young man. I think this novel would have been much stronger if it had been told exclusively from his point of view, using him (of course) as an unreliable narrator. That would have created at least some tension, plus an interesting puzzle for the reader to figure out when he was telling the truth and when he was lying. This is quite a technical challenge for the writer, but one that I am sure someone of Ms. Water’s formidable gifts could handle perfectly well.

And that brings me to my next point. Ms. Waters takes a tremendous risk in having several protagonists telling their stories. While this method of story-telling gives the novel a certain kind of richness, the problem for the reader is that it is too jarring to be thrown from one point-of-view and into another. In this book there were Kay, Duncan, Helen, and Viv. While it is possible that a 530-page trade paperback could encompass four protagonists, the problem with this novel is that we have to keep changing point of view so fast. In Chapter One, for example, we are in Kay’s point-of-view for just six short pages before we are flung into Duncan’s. Speaking for myself, I just found that too disorienting.

Lastly, I agree with other readers who found the plot problematic. I thought there were not nearly enough plot points to make this interesting. We learn that Helen is in a frustrating relationship with Julia who seems about to ditch her for a smarter woman. Then Viv is carrying on with a married man. But neither of these affairs interested me very much because they seemed entirely predictable. Instead, I wanted to know more about Duncan, and his friend Fraser. Three Stars.

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Is this a democracy? The inauguration parade of 2013

Huge metal gates at my favorite spot on 14th & Pennsylvania made it hard to see the parade. I normally stand here. I've never seen anything like this before.

Huge metal gates at my favorite spot on 14th & Pennsylvania made it hard to see the parade. I normally stand here. I’ve never seen anything like this before.

Everyone,

I’m sorry to interject a sour note in the midst of the celebrations, but as the media is NOT reporting this, I feel I must.

First of all, let me make it clear that I am SO relieved that Barack Obama has been re-elected. (The alternative just didn’t bear thinking about IMHO). I am a big fan of the president and consider myself an “Obama girl.” Please bear that in mind when you read this piece.

Yesterday was the fourth time I’ve attended an inaugural parade. Because I live just a mile from the White House, I usually stroll down to Pennsylvania Avenue and stand on the sidewalk. My favorite spot is 14th and Pennsylvania.

Yesterday, I couldn’t do it. I have never seen anything like it. Literally, the parade route was gated up, so there was no way in or out.

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This is the checkpoint on 14th Street near Pennsylvania Avenue. The crowd was HUGE and it moved at a snail’s pace. Imagine hearing the cheers, and the music, and being unable to SEE anything, and you get a picture of how frustrating it was. After an hour of waiting, my back gave out.

I didn’t have a ticket, I don’t know any politicians and I don’t have any pull. I’m just a regular person. The only way I could get to see the parade was to go through a police checkpoint on 14th Street. But the crowd to get through was HUGE and after waiting around for an hour, we’d only edged forward a few feet, and then only because people were leaving. I walked past police checkpoints at 16th Street and 15th Street. There were signs warning that we’d have to undergo having our bags searched. But by the time I got there (around 3 pm) they were shut. So the only way to actually get on the sidewalk to see the parade was to go through the ONE checkpoint that was still open on 14th Street.

After an hour of waiting, my back gave out (I suffer from low back pain) so I gave up trying to go through. I walked back up to I Street and walked west. Where Pennsylvania Avenue reconnects with 18th Street, I was able to see an 18th Century battalion march past. But that was all.

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A view of the US Department of the Treasury, draped in bunting, with two snipers on top.

It seems a great shame that regular citizens like me can’t participate in our nation’s great day. Perhaps if the nation weren’t awash in 300 million weapons, the authorities wouldn’t see the necessity for posting snipers on top of every building.

Or for caging people in who just want to enjoy themselves.

My relatives in England wanted pictures of the parade. It’s a shame that what I have to share suggests a police state rather than a democratic celebration.

Oh, and I can’t go home and watch this on CNN. I don’t possess a TV.

 

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Monday Craft Tip #2: Show, not tell, part 1

“Show, don’t tell,” is a common thing that you hear writing instructors say to their students during workshops on craft. And there are obvious things you can do to heed that advice, such as putting all of the emotional high points of a novel into scenes, rather than summarizing them.

But there are subtle ways in which tells show up in prose style, that also need to be watched. Today, I am going to share what some of those problems are, something I didn’t realize about my own style until it was pointed out to me in the Self-Editing and Revision course I’m taking from Writers Digest.

Here is an example of what I mean. I have put the ‘tells’ in block caps:

Dominick Rossi had fought in the Great War from April 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany, until April 1919, when he’d finally returned home to Chicago. His war had been over for little more than two years and still his experiences haunted him. He brushed away  unpleasant thoughts, TELLING himself that he must  help free the world of the evils of war, and make this new decade, the twenties, happy and peaceful. He looked around, NOTING that dusk was beginning to fall, and REMINDED HIMSELF that he was on his way to his lodgings in Georgetown, Washington D.C.

Here is how I re-wrote the excerpt, getting rid of the ‘tells’:

His war had been over for little more than two years and still his experiences haunted him. He brushed away such unpleasant thoughts. He must help to free the world from the evils of war, and make this new decade, the twenties, happy and peaceful. He looked around. Dusk was beginning to fall. He was on his way to his lodgings in Georgetown, Washington D.C.

Why would you want to do this? The problem with too many ‘tells’ is that it has the effect of distancing the reader from the characters. If the point of the craft you deploy is to make your novel un-put-downable, you don’t want to do that. This is why you look over your writing and eliminate these mistakes.

I am very grateful to the instructor for pointing out these subtle errors in my prose style.

Image: The elegant spire of Healy Hall, Georgetown University, Washington D.C. Dominick Rossi is staring at that tower in the scene I excerpted.

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Friday’s Internet Goodies: Big Als Books and Pals

InternetGoodiesThis Friday, I’m going to start a series called Internet Goodies, which is about various websites that I feel are useful to readers, writers and indie publishers alike.

I chose to start with Big Al’s Books and Pals, because the site is dedicated to helping Indie authors find their audiences, and I think that Big Al and his Pals go about this process in an intelligent and thoughtful way.

BigAl’s Books and Pals concentrates on reviewing books from independent (“indie”) authors available for ereaders, primarily Amazon’s Kindle, but also the Nook from Barnes and Noble.  Several people contribute to this effort. The leader, is (of course) BigAl. This is how he describes himself:

An avid reader for more decades than he wants to admit, BigAl previously reviewed music for a variety of websites and magazines. After having several readers and authors tell him, “You ought to start a book blog,” he said, “what the hell.” BigAl also runs another website, The Indie View, which has resources for authors and readers, including an index of indie book reviews from around the web, a database of indie friendly reviewers, and frequent interviews with authors and reviewers. He is also a regular contributor to Indies Unlimited, and although he denies that he’s an author or writer, somehow got listed as a contributing author to Indies Unlimited: Tutorials and Tools for Prospering in a Digital World. (You can purchase this fromAmazon USAmazon UKBarnes & Noble, or Smashwords.

BigAls&PalsBig Als Pals consist of various people that he knows from across the globe. Some sound like editors. Some are Indie Author. And one of them is related to BigAl.
Indie authors are encouraged to send their books in for submission. However, there are two things you should bear in mind:
1. Submission is no guarantee of a review. The reality is that the majority of books submitted won’t be reviewed.
2. The purpose of the review is to tell READERS whether they should buy the book. It is NOT to help authors.
For submission guidelines, click here.
About negative reviews, click here.

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READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN by Azar Nafisi

ReadingLolitaInTehranREADING LOLITA IN TEHRAN by Azar Nafisi is most famous for the celebrated incident in which F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATBSY is put on trial for immorality. But that is not all there is to this memoir. Jane Austen’s work is examined for her theme of cruelty, practiced not under the extraordinary circumstances of war or hardship, but under the ordinary circumstances of comfortable middle-class life in England in the eighteenth century. This cruelty is practiced by people like us. Surely that is more frightening, remarks Ms. Nafisi.

And then there is Vladimir Nabokov, the author of LOLITA. While some might think that the title of the book is a bid to get attention, it should be said that Ms. Nafisi is an expert on Nabokov, and is the author of ANTI-TERRA: A CRITICAL STUDY OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV’S NOVELS. Speaking for myself, I found the first part of the novel, when she talks about Nabokov, a gem, because she is so good at unpacking Nabokov’s novels and exploring his themes.

Like another reader, I was puzzled by Ms. Nafisi’s assertion that the tale of how Humbert Humbert seduces and rapes his 12-year-old stepdaughter, confiscating her story as he steals her life, was NOT an allegory of what was (and is) going on in Iran. Because it seems to me that it fits very well with the stories of her female students, who were mistreated in various kinds of ways, forced to adopt a repressive style of dress, and often witness to humiliating and brutal treatment of other women (including the heartbreaking story of a beautiful young girl who was repeatedly raped by her jail guards).

This is a wonderful book for book clubs. But it is also wonderful for mothers to use as a way of starting a conversation about the treatment of women in this world as they try to help their teenaged daughters navigate the pitfalls of life. Five Stars. A bookclub recommendation with reader’s guide provided.

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Monday Craft Tip #1: What to do when your writing just won’t flow

So you dutifully sit down to write every morning, but it just doesn’t seem to flow. You worry about word choice. You worry about whether you need this scene. And what to do about your main character who isn’t very likable?

Suddenly, your novel, the one thing you live for has become a chore.

How about warming up to your work by writing a letter instead? It could be a letter to yourself, someone you love, or a long-dead relative. And the best part about it is that you don’t have to mail it.

Use your letter as a way of getting rid of all those things floating around in your brain that distract you.

Use it as a way to muse about your novel.

Or take a leaf out of John Steinbeck’s notebook and use your letter as an “arguing ground” for the story of your novel, as well as all the fears, ambitions and preoccupations that might be interfering with your work.

When you have finished your letter, put it away, and write that next scene.

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Greetings from Northern California

The view from Lucia

 

The view from Lucia

The view from Lucia

Everyone,

I hope that you and your loved ones had a safe & happy Holiday Season! I’m just back home from California where my husband and I spent Christmas visiting family and friends. Needless to say, I’ve come down with a heavy cold, so I’ll have to make this short. Just wanted to let you know that I’ll be posting next week, starting with Monday tips on Mondays, Book reviews on Wednesdays, and Internet goodies on Fridays!

Also, just to let you know, I’m taking THWARTED QUEEN on a blog tour, starting February 11. Stay tuned, and have a wonderful January!

CynthiaSignature

 

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