Beach Reads? Well, maybe not these . . .

I haven’t written much lately because life’s been going in a million different directions.

First – I had my presentation about my research into George Kimmel’s disappearance that I had to prep for (which went great, by the way, thanks for asking, none of my friends did). That took a long time because I had to go back over the material, and dig back into the depositions, and look at the newspapers from my personal godsend, newspapers.com . . . so that meant time away from writing.

Second – well, frankly, I don’t have a second. I’ve been reading books for the ICT Reads challenge (read 11 books, 11 different categories), and getting through my to-be-read list. And some of the books have been amazing! Now, if you’re looking for a ‘beach read,’ this is not that list. But if you’re looking for something that will make you think, here’s a few:

the-perfect-horse-The Perfect Horse, Elizabeth Letts – this book is about the fight to save the famed Lipizanners of the Spanish Riding School, during World War II. What I always heard was a dumbed-down version:  Alois Podhajsky, Director of the School, asked General Patton to save them, and convinced him by doing a riding demonstration of the stallions’ talents. Not necessarily true! There were many people – American and Nazi, Polish and Austrian – who worked tirelessly together to save these horses from being killed by the Russians. Note:  if you grew up during the Cold War like I did, this book will not make you like the Russians any more than you probably do now – which, if you’re like me, isn’t very much.

notes small islandNotes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson – hands down the best, funniest, and most heartfelt look at Britain ever written. If you don’t want to go to Britain, you will after reading this. Bryson doesn’t pull punches, but he manages to find something endearing even in the worst situations. It is absolutely laugh-out-loud funny in places, so be warned and don’t read it in public unless you’re willing to let others in on the secret!

 

dominionDominion, C.J. Sansom – I’ve read Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels, set during the Dissolution period (1530s – 40s) in England. So when I saw this cover, I felt compelled to see what it was about. Fact:  this is the absolute scariest book I’ve ever read. Forget Stephen King. Forget Dean Koontz. They write about monsters and crap that isn’t real. But this – When I explain World War II for my students, I tell them to think about it as a giant chess game:  all the people, all the pieces had to be in their precise place in order for the Allies to win. Hitler had to survive numerous attempts on his life; Churchill had to be pulled from the morass to become PM; Roosevelt had to be elected to an unprecedented third term; King Edward had to abdicate his throne, leaving it to his younger brother. But remove just one piece . . . and what happens? This book. It’s set in 1952, twelve years after Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany and became ‘allies’ of Hitler. Churchill never became Prime Minister, and there was no one to convince the people to fight. So now, the police work with the Gestapo to root out dissenters; the Resistance is trying to gain ground against a corrupt British government; and I feel such revulsion in knowing that this is all extremely plausible and could have happened. It makes you think. It makes you realize what might have been.

forgersspell-coverThe Forger’s Spell, Edward Dolnick – LOVE this book! Last year I bought a bunch of books for a YA novel I was toying with writing (still am, don’t go getting any ideas!), about art heists, forgeries, and the Nazi quest to steal all the great treasures of Europe for themselves. This one, I read first. Dolnick is an art lover, and a great storyteller. The book is about the ‘career’ of Hans van Meegeren, a hack painter (seriously, how anyone could mistake his crappy, creepy stuff for Vermeer is beyond me!) who made a fortune during the 1930s and 40s selling faked masterpieces to the Nazis. Dolnick does a great job of explaining precisely how van Meegeren was able to do this – and get away with it for so long. A great story, and highly recommended.

 

Now that I’m off for summer, I’ll be getting back to work on the novels (once I get over this stupid sinus infection and can keep my eyes open, anyway!), and writing about that process. I can tell you right now:  the theme of the summer will be rewrites. But for now, if any of these books tickles your fancy, do grab them!

 

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Photo Challenge: Liquid

A few years ago, my photography club went to the local state lake to do some shooting. For once, the waterfall was in action. It was the first time I’d ever seen it, and I’m afraid I may have gotten carried away! It was so cool down on the river – we had to watch for snakes, of course, but the spray of the water, the mud sucking at our shoes, the roar over which we could just barely hear the birdsong – it was incredibly peaceful and beautiful.

Waterfall

waterfall 15vg bw

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/liquid/

When a TV series leaves you heartbroken

As I write tonight, I’m totally heartbroken, and angry, and pissed off, and frustrated.

I know it’s completely first-world. I get it. But damn it, sometimes you just don’t care.

Tom-Ellis-as-Lucifer-1320694For the past three years, I’ve totally loved Lucifer. It is hands-down one of the most original, funny, sexy shows on television. Not to mention one of the best-written, and best-acted. I have a total crush on Tom Ellis (come on! Of course a tall dark handsome gorgeous Brit is going to be the Devil!), and the story lines are incredible spins on the biblical tropes we all know so well.

But now . . . it’s gone. All gone. All we know is that Chloe finally knows – really knows – that Lucifer has been telling her the truth all along. He never made any bones about what he was. Never went by an alias. Lucifer Morningstar. Right there on his driver’s license.

You know, network TV, THIS IS WHY NO ONE WANTS TO WATCH YOUR SHOWS ANY MORE. You rip them away from us! Without warning! You didn’t choose to cancel Lucifer when the writers could have wrapped it up and given us an ending – oh no, not you. FOX has to leave us on a total cliffhanger – Pierce/Cain dead, Lucifer (just when we think maybe he and Chloe will finally be able to be together!) gone back to being his full-blown devil self . . . and in walks Chloe.

AND THAT’S FREAKING IT??? THAT’S ALL WE EVER GET???

I hate you, FOX. I hate you so much.

Here’s why I loved the show so much – besides Tom Ellis, of course:

The entire cast. ALL the characters worked so well together – flawed, human (even Maze, the quintessential demon!), and learning to care about each other. Linda, trying to figure out how to be a psychologist to angels. Chloe, just trying to do her job, even with the sexiest and most annoying partner in the world. Amendiel, trying to be the good son . . . and figuring out that maybe it’s not possible. Charlotte’s quest to overcome her past and redeem herself. It all just worked. 

The story lines. So much TV isn’t character-driven, but perhaps because this was based on work by Neil Gaiman, these story lines were definitely character-driven. Lucifer, the rebellious son, doing his best to rebel against whatever he thinks ‘dear old Dad’ wants him to do . . . his anger drove so much, and yet it was so easy to relate to, because who among us hasn’t rebelled against authority? It’s just that when you’re an angel, the rebellions tend to be a bit bigger, is all.

And on the story lines – I loved that this show took familiar ground and shook it up. The devil decides to leave Hell and move to Los Angeles to open a nightclub and freelance as a consultant with the police department? Who wouldn’t love that? I’m not Christian, so nothing about making Lucifer into the hero of the story bothered me. In fact, as a writer, I love it – it’s the perfect twist. Take the ultimate baddie, and make him into a tortured, misunderstood hero. It just goes back to the old adage that all villains see themselves as the hero of their own story.

It was funny. Just – funny! Seriously, the devil going to a psychologist (and yes, paying her with sex, but what do you expect?!). But it was also so heartfelt and all the characters felt so much for each other. Like a few episodes back, when Lucifer was heartbroken that Chloe and Pierce were getting closer, and Linda asked him “what do you – the devil – truly desire?” The dawning look of realization on his face . . . See, I’m tearing up just thinking about it.

But it really is about the romance between Chloe and Lucifer. Even if she was created especially for him (if you believe Amendiel’s story), there was never a clear path forward for these characters. I mean, a mortal woman and the devil? A mortal and an angel? How the devil (pardon the pun) was that ever going to work? He’s spent his entire time on earth denying that he even IS an angel, and then in the finale, has to embrace his true nature in order to save the woman he loves. Classic inner conflict! But we hoped. We hoped so hard. We hoped that he’d get over himself and his rebellious nature for five freaking seconds, and that she’d be open-minded enough to accept him for who – and what – he is.

We hoped.

I am not yet giving up hope.

#SaveLucifer

Criticism . . . and How to Accept It (sort of)

There’s an imp that lives under my desk. He’s an ugly little spud who loves to stare at me and cackle gleefully (he does not, however, slime me, for which I suppose I should be grateful!). And his name is Ihatecriticism. (Not to be confused with Ihatedoctors and Ihatetrump and Ihatewinter, obviously.)

I’ve lived with Ihatecriticism for a long time. Most of my life, really. You might have one of these little things, too. Sometimes they’re strong enough to keep us from even starting something new (What on earth do you think you’re doing? You don’t know what you’re doing! You suck! You will suck!) And sometimes, if we’re able to exorcise them, they mostly go away . . .

But I don’t know that they ever, truly, disappear.

Ihatecriticism is a parasite. Black, spidery, sucking the joy and life out of everything. Just when I’m starting to feel good about my writing, or the way my novel is going – BOOM! Out he jumps to remind me that I Suck, and I Will Never Be Any Good, and oh yeah, I Suck.

I’ve been wrestling with him again this week, as my beta readers have been working on one of my manuscripts. Let’s be honest:  for a writer, the hardest thing in the world is to sit quietly and let people rip your work apart. Even when you know it’s for the best, even when you know they have your interest at heart, even when you know  you actually asked for it . . . when it comes time to actually sit down across from them, with your baby manuscript in front of you, and listen to their criticisms . . . you really would rather have a root canal without the numbing agent.

I’ve been there several times. It’s one reason why I’m driven to being a perfectionist – because I hate, absolutely hate, to be criticized. If I leave no room for it, then no one can do it. Sounds plausible, right?

The problem, of course, is that nothing can be perfect.

Several years ago, I taught a creative writing class at my local college. For the most part, I had very talented students who wanted to be better. The class was structured as a workshop; students submitted written assignments, then we all critiqued them during the next week and discussed them in class the next week. We had rules about critiquing. They  had to learn what made a critique constructive. They learned how to look for the good and the bad, and give time to both.

But there was one student who simply could not take the criticism. She couldn’t write. At all. She could have gotten better, but she refused to admit the problems. Sentences were unreadable. Spelling and grammatical errors filled the pages. We offered her several solutions for the first half of the semester – the most important being simply running spellcheck and reading her work aloud. No dice. Finally, students started to avoid her works. Those that continued to try to offer help were met with open hostility. We didn’t understand her vision. We didn’t get it. We were hacks, not artists. 

Don’t be that student.

It’s hard. I’ve been gearing myself up for a month for these critiques, and part of me is still not sure I’m ready. Even coming from friends who want to see me succeed, it’s going to be hard. Even though I ASKED them to do this, it’s going to be hard! But here’s the sad fact:  I’m too close to the novel. I can’t see all the flaws. I know what I meant to say – but I have no idea if I actually said it. I know what I meant to do with the story – but can others see that?

And that, precisely, is why you need constructive criticism.

One of the things that can help both you and your beta readers is to settle ahead of time what you specifically want feedback on. Are you looking for line edits? Character? Continuity? Overall story cohesion? Chapter transitions? All of the above? Spell it out for them (maybe even in email so they remember). Then, you’ve asked for it, and they feel comfortable providing it. Win-win.

Another thing you can do is set up rules ahead of time. One writing group I belonged to had a rule:  while receiving feedback, writers had to enter the ‘Cone of Silence.’ As long as we were discussing a work, that author could not speak. Couldn’t argue. That gave the betas time and space to deliver their feedback, and the writer time and space to accept and digest it. Once the feedback was delivered, the writer could then offer explanations, or ask further questions. It worked really well.

You can also require everyone to give constructive criticism, which simply means this:  readers must tell you the good with the bad. We all like to know what we did well! In fact, really good feedback begins withe the positive. “I liked X – she’s sassy and funny and believable!” Or, “I love the way you handle dialogue – it really pops and every character has a distinct voice.” Then, and only then, should you go to the criticisms.

As for actually hearing and accepting it . . . well. Suck it up, buttercup.

It’s not just hard to hear the feedback:  it’s bloody hard. You want to defend things. You will have a small voice in your head screaming that your betas didn’t read carefully enough because they missed X and Y, and how could they not understand that joke, or they’re all man-haters, so of course they hate your main character . . . and the fact is, those are probably the things you need to work on the most. The general rule of thumb is this:  if you give your work to five people, and one of them dislikes something, it’s probably them. If all five dislike something, it’s probably you.

But you do have to suck it up, if you want to get better. Your betas will catch things that you just can’t. You want to fix those things before an agent ever sees that manuscript. And even then, your agent will have criticisms. So will your editor. And . . . so will your readers. Don’t you want the chance to fix things before those mistakes get plastered all over Goodreads.com? Because if you think Ihatecriticism is bad now, just wait until all those vicious people get their hands on your book!

If you want to write, and then stick your manuscripts in the drawer, then you probably don’t need feedback. You probably also don’t have that little demon hiding under your desk. But if you do want published . . . then at some point, you need to get some holy water and exorcise that little imp back where it belongs.

 

 

https://www.bustle.com/p/12-tips-for-getting-feedback-on-your-writing-43119 – some great tips on how to accept feedback and criticism!

https://www.nownovel.com/blog/give-constructive-criticism/ – Good tips on how to provide other writers with good constructive feedback.

https://hobbylark.com/writing/Giving-and-Receiving-Feedback-in-Writers-Groups – More tips on how to give good feedback.

http://lisapoisso.com/2016/11/23/handle-editing-feedback/ – Although this deals more with editorial feedback, it’s still got some good information for how to handle feedback from your betas, too.

 

Writing a damn fine story? Read ‘Damn Fine Story,’ then!

damfinestoryIf you’ve read my blog for long, you know that I have a bit of an addiction to books about writing. I firmly believe that if you’re having an issue with your writing – whatever it is you write, however long you’ve been writing – it can be helpful to see what others have to say.

Often, if I’m stuck on a manuscript and don’t precisely know why – or even if I do know why, but can’t figure out how to fix it – I’ll go to Barnes & Noble and see what’s new in the writing aisle. I did this a couple of months ago, and came home with one of the best books about writing I’ve ever read – Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story. 

If the name’s familiar, that’s because Chuck has written many novels. He’s also a regular columnist with Writer’s Digest. And in this book, he uses popular works to illustrate his points about how to write your story. Emphasis on story. 

I bought this book because – well, the cover, for one thing! Who doesn’t love a deer in a monocle? Seriously. Who? But I also bought it because of the paragraph I read when I flipped the book open to page 7:

“You can’t plug a bunch of narrative components into an equation and spit out a perfect story. The truth is, most of what I’m telling you here is wildly imperfect. It’s guesswork. It’s lies layered with horseshit layered with I-don’t-know-what-I’m-talking-about. You don’t have the answers, either. Now writing is beholden to very specific rules, and those these rules are very flexible, they’re also teachable. Storytelling is far more . . . wiggly.” 

I knew. The moment I read those lines, I knew I wanted to read this book. Chuck doesn’t pull punches. This is not a book about getting to know your characters or crafting the perfect descriptive sentence or creating rules for your paranormal universe (although those things are covered). No. This book is about how to tell a story. And the next thing that grabbed me, and turned me upside down and shook the loose change out of my pockets, was this gem from page 10:

“Storytelling is an act of interrupting the status quo.” 

Yeah. Think about that one for a second. Chuck makes you think about it. Really, when it comes down to it, that’s what a story is, right? You have a character in stasis, until Something Happens and their status quo is shattered. The rest of the story is about the fallout and what the character does as a result. Does he come into possession of a magical, dangerous ring that must be destroyed in the fires of Mt. Doom? Does she learn she can see ghosts? Do your high school classmates wake up one morning to find the Russians have invaded? Status quo – interrupted. And your story starts there.

Before you start the book, I’ll warn you:  it’s helpful if you’ve seen Die Hard and Star Wars (like, the whole series) recently. Chuck uses them to illustrate the points he makes. You’ll understand why.

One thing I absolutely love about this book is Chuck’s take on the traditional three-story arc. He hates it. See, I always thought I was the weirdo, the wrong one, for never being able to make my stories adhere to that damn thing! Rising action, climax, denouement. Never worked for me. And if you’re like me, Chuck is here to assure you that it’s okay! We’re not the weirdos! (You can chant it if you want! I did!) His argument is this:  “No story conforms to a standard shape . . . if you think about story in a three-dimensional way, suddenly you get a roller coaster – it rises, it falls, it whips left, it jerks right, it corkscrews through the air before spinning you upside down in a vicious loop-de-loop.”

See? Don’t we want to write stories like that?

Now, Chuck also has a lot to say about characters. Here’s another way to look at story:  your character has a problem; the story is the solution. Again, the status quo is interrupted. What your character does about that is the story. But more than that:  how does your character change during the story? Because they should, Chuck argues; otherwise, what’s the story about? In fact, he like to give a character three transition points:  who is this person in the beginning, the middle, and the end? He also believes that every scene, every line of dialogue, should drive home who this character is (using, of course, hero John McClane from Die Hard as his example).

There’s so much to this book – structuring scenes, how to give your characters agency in the novel, using subplots, themes and symbols – and all of it will make you consider your own work-in-progress in a new way.

There are lots of general books about writing out there. There are books that are genre-specific, those that tell you how to create characters, or structure plot, or create better descriptions, or add comedy to your writing. Damn Fine Story is not quite one of those. 🙂 Instead, Chuck looks at things through a different lens. A different, irreverent lens. Yes, he uses language. If that’s a problem for you, overlook it and read the book anyway.

You will be SO glad you did.

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/damn-fine-story-chuck-wendig/1126583462#/

http://terribleminds.com/ramble/ – Chuck’s website and blog

Photo Challenge: Awakening

Let’s face it:  this challenge was made for spring.

Of course, today we’re having snow, rain, and bitterly cold winds in Kansas, so I have to look back to earlier times for this week’s challenge!

flowers 13

This lovely spiderwort was perfect for this bee last year. 🙂

flowers 9 vg

And I always know spring is finally here when the wild roses begin blooming. I wish they lasted longer than they do.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/awakening/

“How could the ending go so wrong?” Finales, endings, and ‘The Alienist’

Like 47 million other people, I’ve been glued to my TV for the last several weeks, watching the television adaptation of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. If you’ve somehow had your head in the sand since January – well, let me catch you up. Trump is being sued by a porn star, Linda Brown died this past week, millions marched for safer schools, and The Alienist is a novel set in 1896 New York, about a trio of allies trying to save the city’s most vulnerable children from a predator.

The trio is as follows:

  • Dr. Lazlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl) – One of a new breed of psychologists who want to explain crimes by explaining why criminals act as they do – in short, a forensic psychologist.
  • John Schuyler Moore (Luke Evans) – well-born, wealthy, and living with his grandmother after his engagement was called off in what we suspect was a very bad manner. Also a newspaper artist.
  • Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) – an intrepid woman intent on making her own way in the world. She’s starting by being the first woman ever hired by the New York City Police Department.

Truthfully – I loved this show. As a historian, I appreciated the reality of it – the grittiness, the dirt, the obvious disconnect between the social classes (there’s a scene in which John gives money to a child prostitute, hoping it will help him escape that life . . . and only later realizes that he could/should have actually taken the child in. But it takes him nearly the entire series to even give him money!), and the sheer reality. History’s not clean. It’s not neat and tidy. It shouldn’t be, anyway, because it wasn’t. And The Alienist never shied away from that.

the alienistI loved the historic reality, which included Theodore Roosevelt as a main character (he was Commissioner of the New York City Police Force during this time anyway; he kind of had to be in there). Now, I haven’t read the book yet – it’s in my to-be-read list – but I suspect a great deal of Roosevelt’s character in the show came from Carr’s novel. If so, my hat’s off to Carr. 🙂 There’s one scene in particular that I love:  at the opera, Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan come face-to-face. In real life, and in the show, the two are enemies; they despise each other completely. And in this scene, the disgust is palpable. Both stare at each other; then Roosevelt, as the social inferior, gives Morgan the barest of nods. “Morgan.” Morgan, in return, gives him a curt, “Roosevelt.” And I’m sitting there in my mind screaming Yeah, in ten  years, you’re going DOWN, Morgan! And Roosevelt’s going to be the one that brings you down! (Yeah, you’ve got to be a historian to get it, I know.)

So for the past several weeks, I’ve been glued to my television at 8pm. Great storytelling, fantastic acting. Luke Evans is my new fantasy crush. You do get the sense that you’re missing things – adaptations from 600+ page novels do need to cut things, I suppose – but overall, it’s been a hell of a ride.

That is . . . until the finale.

And I hate to say it – you’ve no idea how much I hate to say it – but I’ve rarely been more disappointed in a series finale in my life.

Not the acting. No, LOVE the actors! Luke Evans is amazing, Dakota Fanning is amazing, everyone is amazing. No. Sadly . . . it was the writing.

Like most writers, I can only imagine what it would be like to have my novel adapted for either film or television. What most people don’t understand is that the authors may actually have very little input into how that adaptation is made. Look at Outlander, for crying out loud – I don’t think the writers on that show could screw things up more. I imagine that rabid fans of Caleb Carr were equally aghast at changes made to their beloved novel, but I have to say that as a viewer only, I didn’t see them, so they didn’t affect me.

Yeah. Well. Until tonight.

The entire series has been about seeking a murderer – a sick psycho who preys on boy prostitutes, killing them gruesomely on holy days. Many of them have been on their own for ages; they have created a family, but they have also learned to be street-smart and self-reliant. One of these boys, Joseph, is befriended by John Moore – and then kidnapped by the killer and held in a secure location until the next holy day.

That’s not the problem. Raise the stakes. Every good writer knows that. MY problem stemmed from the way these scenes were handled by the writers. Joseph is street-smart and resourceful (he’s lived to the ripe old age of ten or twelve, after all). Yet here he lies on a stone floor, with his hands tied in front of him, left alone for most of the time, and yet he never tries, not once, to escape? This is the point where the entire show just – stopped. And lost all credibility with me. Joseph’s a prostitute, for God’s sake. He’s done and seen just about everything. He knows this man is going to kill him. Yet . . . he does nothing to save himself. Not one freaking thing. It’s as if the writers needed an excuse to get John, Kreizler, and Sarah to the scene of the crime, so they let Joseph be helpless. It was truly disappointing. I don’t know if the ending in the novel is the same way or not, but if so, it’s going to be disappointing, too.

And yes, grittiness is good, but in this same scene, the killer kills a cat in front of Joseph, for no reason. This really bothered on several levels, not the least of which is that I’m a cat lover and I hated this scene. But as a writer, it was – pardon the pun – overkill. Newsflash:  we KNOW the bastard’s evil. We get it. We don’t need more evidence. Show us the villain is evil . . . make us believe it . . . and then get on with things.

And for things out of character . . . Kreizler. OMG.

For the entire season, Kreizler has described the killer – rightfully so – as a ‘monster.’ He wants to understand him in order to stop him. That’s it. He doesn’t want to feel pity for him. He doesn’t want to feel sympathy for him. He wants to stop him. End of discussion. But at the end, when the killer is shot and runs away, Kreizler first tries to stop the shooting, and then runs after the killer and cradles his head as he dies. He calls him a ‘damaged child.’

I can’t even. Seriously. It was SO disappointing to see this sudden about-face. The thing murdered innocent children and cats, for God’s sake! I just can’t see Kreizler suddenly changing his mind and feeling sympathy for him. I just can’t. Again, I don’t know if Kreizler does this in the book or not – I hope not, or at least, if he does, I hope the reasons for it are better explained than they were in the show – but for me, it was a slap in the face.

So a great show, a great season, kind of ruined by the writers. Sure, there have been other disappointing series finales. The X-Files comes to mind. But that came at the end of three years that really never should have been. There was never any hope for that finale. But this one? I feel like the writers let me down. Big time. It might have helped if Joseph had been tied up correctly (hands behind the back, chained to a pipe in the wall, ANYTHING) – at least, in some manner that he couldn’t escape on his own. It might have helped if they had made it more clear why Kreizler had his sudden change of heart (and no, the fact that his father was borderline abusive doesn’t cut it with me; Kreizler turned out fine, after all).

In a show that go so much right . . . how could the ending have gone so wrong?