Monday, January 18, 2016

BLACK-EYED SUSANS by Julia Heaberlin


I found it!  Ever since I wrote my post titled HOW I CHOOSE in August of 2015, I've been searching for something to read that I can enjoy and respect.  I downloaded a lot of lending library books, and got so fed up with feeling like my eyeballs were rotting, that I took a different approach.  I downloaded samples of books I must actually buy.  One sample intrigued me so much that I asked my son to give me a copy for Christmas.  He came through and delivered a beautiful hardback of BLACK-EYED SUSANS by Julia Heaberlin.

On a side note, he had to order the book online because he could not find it in any bookstores.  He found another one of Heaberlin's books, which he reported "looks like a good read too".  I'm hoping that he couldn't find BLACK-EYED SUSANS in a bookstore simply because it was sold out, because if it wasn't, it should have been.

I read the whole novel in a short period of time without shelving it to return to later.  If I didn't have so many responsibilities that trump pleasurable pursuits and if I didn't have to sleep, I probably could have read this book in one sitting instead of over a period of a couple of weeks.

While reading, I continually felt little explosions of happiness popping in my head.  It wasn't that the story itself was happy, but that I was giddy to find an author who can write well and who has other books I can read.  Each sentence was jam-packed with subtle, but important messages -- even the descriptions.  I don't think I found a single word that was a waste of my time, or evidence of the writer getting in the way of the story.

In fact, I was in awe, wishing I had thought of this or that when I wrote my own suspense novels.  I learned so much about writing while reading this book.  Everything -- and I mean everything -- from the cover right down to the acknowledgments, was finely crafted and even mesmerizing.

I loved that the entire story revolved around a specific "event", but that event was left up to the imagination of the reader.  I, personally, didn't want to know the details of that event, and feel that it was a much better story without them.  I found the relationship between two childhood friends to be fresh and engaging, and the story got me thinking about old friends I thought I would have for life, but for whatever reason disappeared off the face of the earth.

The chapters were short, always leaving the reader's mind hanging by a branch on the edge of a cliff.  I was unable to predict the ending, because I fell into the trap of picking up on Heaberlin's subtle clues that led me down the wrong path.  I did feel that some points were left unresolved, but I attribute that to me being unable to concentrate on reading with my daily distractions and interruptions.  A lot of information was packed into tiny sentences, and I could have easily missed a resolution.  For that reason, I'm planning on reading the book again after enough time has passed for me to forget some of it and for me look at the plot with fresh eyes.  However, even if I did catch everything, I still would want to read the book again.  It was that good.

But first, I will be reading Heaberlin's other novels.  From me, that is saying a lot.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Three More Reasons Why Tablets Rule

Some of us have taken longer than others to make the switch from books to ebooks, and many still haven't made the transition.  Last year I would have placed myself right in the middle of the spectrum.  This year I'm leaning toward the ebook side.

The other night my husband was reading a book at the dinner table and had to get up to go into the kitchen.  As soon as he let go of the book, the pages flipped and he lost his place.  He grumbled about having to hunt around for something to use as a bookmark and said, "That's one more thing I appreciate about ebooks on tablets.  You can walk away without having to worry about losing your place."

It's true.  I keep an envelope filled with bookmarks, some of which my children made for me when they were in elementary school.  However, physical bookmarks still fall out of books and get chewed up by dogs.

Last night there was a big flash in the night sky as a transformer near us blew.  We spent a couple of hours in blackout conditions, and I discovered what a blessing it is to have an ebook tablet under those circumstances.  Since we couldn't watch TV or play video games for entertainment, we could read on our battery powered tablets, which provide their own light to read by.  At my age, my eyes are not good enough to read a paperback by candlelight.  Also, the tablets worked well as flashlights to help us get around the house.

I discovered the other day that I can stock up on free ebooks to read on rainy days when the electricity is out and I am unable to download a new purchase.  Teams of volunteers have converted some selections of classic literature into electronic format and are giving the books away for free if they are now public domain or if they have permission to do so.  I think about all the books I had to buy for English classes throughout high school and college, and today's college students can get many of those publications for free.  That doesn't exactly make up for the outrageously high cost of a college education nowadays, but at least it makes life a little easier.  You don't have to worry about the bookstore running out of copies.

Friday, August 28, 2015

How I Choose

I recently joined the Kindle Lending Library, but have had trouble finding anything I care to borrow.  Usually, I have trouble finding books I'd be willing to buy, but it is quite a statement to myself when I become aware that I am not even willing to wager my time to read a free book.

What is my problem?  Am I a literary snob?  Am I just so old that I've "been there and done that" with every book subject and nothing gets my creative juices flowing anymore?

I wasn't sure.  I decided to pay attention to my internal dialogue while digging through ebooks to try to figure out why I was rejecting so many of them.  In search of the most common themes of my thinking, I realized that what it comes right down to is that I avoid anything that feels slick.

One factor that contributes to the slick feel is using gimmicks like "do x in y number of days" or "13 tips on how to z".  That's an old magazine article technique that attracted readers who wanted a quick bit of advice from an expert without having to read a novel.  It doesn't sit well with me in the arena of ebooks.

Blatantly fake pen names are a big turn off for me.  If you stand behind your writing, why not use your real name?  And if you prefer to keep your anonymity and privacy because you fear you will become famous someday, at least use a believable name and don't make up something a 10-year-old girl might use while playing house, or worse yet, a name that sounds like a stripper in a nightclub.

I also find that I flip right past books that have parentheses in the title, usually saying something like (Book 14 in The John Smith Series).  My first response upon seeing that the book is one of a series is to vomit a little in my mouth.  I tire of reading about the adventures of the same character pretty quickly and need new characters to hold my interest.  Plus, since anyone can publish a book nowadays, I don't trust that most authors know how to make a series book stand on its own.  I certainly don't want to be forced to buy the first book and read them in order so that I can know what is going on, when I've got so many other things to do before I die.

Along similar lines are the authors who have a dozen titles with slight variations on the subject matter.  Many times they use the same title over and over, but just change one word to make the book stand out from their others.  When an author has published too many books in a short period of time, I get suspicious.  Either the writing is going to be awful, or the book is going to be more like the length of a leaflet.  Their efforts feel more like a slimy, deceitful business move and less like a creative force.

I see this a lot in books on writing and publishing.  The first thing I do when someone wants to give me advice is to look at their credentials, and when I see a picture of some teenager on the author's page, it is difficult for me to believe that he or she has had enough life experience to be giving advice in the first place.  For me, those who want to give advice either need to already be successful in the subject area and have a recognizable name, or they need to hold an educational degree that shows that they at least have been trained on the subject.

The usage of lingo that identifies the author's generation as being that of my future grandchildren is also a big turn off.  I'm sure young people can be very successful in attracting an audience within their own generation, but by using current terminology only found on high school and college campuses, they are limiting their prospects.

Also, I can identify reviews written by friends and family of the writer from a mile away.  Reviewers who talk more about the author than the ebook give their relationship away.  I immediately dismiss the opinions written in those types of comments.  I also dismiss all five-star reviews.  I figure that people who write five-star reviews either know the author personally, are easily impressed, are afraid to criticize, or are giving out five-star reviews like candy because they are authors themselves and want the favor returned some day.  I go straight to the least number of stars and read what those curmudgeons have to say, because I figure most of them are jaded like me.  If their complaints resonate with me as something that would bug me, I move on to the next book.

I recently read a book written by an acquaintance.  I really loved the book and had planned to give it a five-star review.  However, when I got out to Amazon's site and saw that the author already had dozens of five-star reviews with not a single negative remark, I decided to do her a favor and give her book four stars with one small criticism.  At least that way people knew there was one "real" review in there.  Call it reverse psychology, but I really felt that I expanded her audience by doing that.

I've read all the same books that other indie writers have studied, and with many ebooks I can tell which of those writing advice manuals they've followed based upon their marketing approach.  It's okay to march to the beat of your own drum.  I prefer to read the works of writers who think for themselves.  They are more likely to produce something that is fresh and exciting.

I've read a lot of books that emphasize the importance of book covers.  That's the first impression a buyer gets, and the cover (if the buyer isn't searching for works by a specific author) is what leads to the buyer either flipping to the next person's book or taking the time to read the description of your book.  At that point, your description has to hold the buyer's attention, so I agree that book covers and descriptions are extremely important.  However, the book itself has to be great if you expect to get any return customers, so pretty much everything has to be perfect.

I think a lot of authors ruin their chances of attracting attention by the images they put on their book covers.  I have a strong aversion to romance novels, so any time I see shirtless men with washboard abs in cowboy hats or huge lips slathered in red lipstick or people kissing with their hair blowing in the wind, my stomach starts heaving.  The book may not even be a romance novel, but if I see any image that suggests that it may be of the romance genre, I'm outta there.  So, you constantly have to be thinking about how your book cover images could be perceived by different personalities and how they could impact the expanse of your potential readership.

Cliches kill me.  Yes, I use them when I speak and write blog posts, and cliches can be useful in dialog to show characterization, but I do not want to see them in titles and descriptions, because all that does is tell me that the author has not had the proper training to be writing.  Any respectable creative writing mentor would blow those cliches right out of a student's writing, and no well-trained editor would let them reach print.

Unprofessional author bios are a really quick way to lose my attention.  When I was a part of the literary crowd in college, we all wrote jokes into our bios when our works were published in the university's literary journal, but once you get out into the real world, you need to keep things business-like.  I don't want to hear about how special the author is because he or she wanted to be a writer ever since he or she started eating solid foods.  I'm also not interested in how many moonlighting jobs the author possessed, how poor the author might have been while whittling away at his words, or other things he sacrificed to prove his devotion to the profession.  Sacrifice is a given if you choose to do just about anything artistic for a living.  I don't mind a little bit of personal information beyond a list of writing accomplishments in order to make the author more accessible to his readers, such as Dean Koontz mentioning his current Golden Retriever, but keep it down to one sentence.  Do not go overboard on the silliness or you will date yourself as having been born yesterday.

Also, anytime I see an author's name taking up more than 1/3rd of the cover like it's being shoved down my throat, I google the name to see if he or she is truly deserving of having a flashing name up in lights on the boardwalk.  Traditionally, publishers started making the author's name more prominent than the title of the book when the author surpassed a certain number of best-sellers or was already a celebrity of some sort before the book was produced.  If you aren't already famous, be humble, put the focus on the book and not your name.  If you're not sure if you're famous, sign up for a service that shoots you an email every time someone searches on your name.  That will serve as a decent gauge for your popularity and offer a more scientific approach to keeping your ego in check.

I admit that I have a stronger aversion to sales techniques than most people.  Manipulations are very transparent to me, and I am not afraid to slam doors and windows in the faces of con artists who show up on my doorstep.  I can also be pretty rude to people who don their salesman caps in my presence.  If I want or need something, I will go get it.  I don't need people to convince me to buy something that is not on my radar, and I don't appreciate having my time wasted when they attempt to do so.  I'm slowly moving away from traditional cable TV to commercial-free services, because it lowers my morale having sales pitches coming at me so relentlessly.  I think that is why I am so sensitive to ebooks that place more of a focus on the sales of themselves than on what the reader wants or needs, which brings me to my final peeve:  Book descriptions and reviews that are obviously written by friends and relatives of the author that say, "BUY THIS BOOK NOW!"

Don't tell me what to do.  Does anybody really think that people are so stupid that they will mindlessly follow such a command?  Come on.  Give us some credit.  Respect your readers.  Acknowledge that they are intelligent beings.  Please.  I beg you.

So, that's my subconscious method of picking through ebooks in the Kindle Lending Library.  Unfortunately, I talked more about why I choose not to check out most books.  I'll let you know the flip side of it once I find something I'm willing to read.  I'll also let you know if my choices were satisfying.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Thank You

Thank you to the people who downloaded 67 copies of THE I's of IRIS during the five-day giveaway. I hope you enjoy the book. Please take the time to write a review or send me your feedback once you are done reading it. Your opinions are important to me.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Get Your Free Copy

From August 1st through August 5th, 2015, my suspense novel THE I's of IRIS is free on Amazon.com.  This is the second edition of the novel, as I received some generous feedback from readers of the first edition and decided to make some changes based upon the reviews and suggestions I received in emails.

Should you download and read your free copy, I would really appreciate hearing from you either in an Amazon review or through the contact information listed at the end of the book.  You can also leave a comment here on this blog.  Enjoy!


Thursday, July 2, 2015

Discovering Scrivener

I've considered buying Scrivener writing software over the years, but had a hard time picturing how I would use it, and how it would be any easier than simply typing into a text document.  I was rather stuck in my ways, so I kept putting the thought of purchasing a copy on the back burner.  Then one day my husband wanted to buy Scrivener for a screenwriting project, and said he would buy one for me to use on my laptop while he was at it.

The timing was good, because I had just started working on the first chapter of my third suspense novel, and was able to easily integrate it into Scrivener.  I've always been what writers call a pantser, or a writer who flies by the seat of her pants without any plan of where to go and where to land.  I found that approach to writing to be free and fun, however, it also led to lengthy bouts with writer's block when I could not figure out where to take the story next.  Or, worse yet, I'd get stuck because I wrote myself into a corner and knew I'd have to delete a lot of it to work my way out.

I've always admired the outline or storyboard approach to writing a novel, but never seemed to have the patience or foresight to practice the technique.  When the urge hit me to write, I wanted to write without having to hash out the plot ahead of time.  I always had faith that the plot would reveal itself in time to me while I wrote.

When I first started using Scrivener, I didn't utilize many of the tools and I actually felt that going back to fill in titles and summaries in various locations was just bogging me down...  until I hit my first roadblock.  I knew there was a fatal flaw in my story.  I didn't create enough tension in the present without first jumping into stories about the past.  This was supposed to be a suspense novel, not a biography of the main character.  I needed more action and less memories.  I needed motive to dig into the past so that the reader would be digging into the main character's past right along with me.

I began formulating in my mind what was needed to fill in the gap.  At first, I relied on my old habit of sticking notes into the text, and then I realized that was what the notecards were for.  No sooner did I create a new notecard with the summary of the scene I needed to write, and I'd think of another scene I should add in before it.  Scrivener made it so easy to add and organize pieces of the plot.  I didn't have to read through pages upon pages of text to find the best location to add in these scenes.  I didn't even have to run a word or phrase search.  All I had to do was look at the notecards and flip them around however it suited the story best.  Within minutes I had enough material to write that I could keep myself busy for the next several weeks, and feel confident that I wasn't writing myself into a corner.

Scrivener makes it so easy to save your place.  I get distracted and interrupted just about every five minutes throughout the day as I attempt to write.  My memory is lousy, so when I return to my laptop, I often times can't remember where I left off or what I was about to do.  However, with Scrivener, I can quickly add a notecard or add something to my To Do List or just simply flip to whatever scene I was going to work on next, which helps me remember much more quickly where I was in the writing process before I was taken away from it.

I love that I don't have to scroll up and down a lengthy single text document, but can navigate quickly through many different paths, and can even bring up two scenes on a split screen to make sure that they do not have information in them that contradicts the other.  Upon finishing my last novel, THE I's of IRIS, I had to do a tremendous amount of editing because, in what I thought was my final read-thru, I caught several pieces of information that did not fit with the rest of the story.  I'd think, "Where in the story did I read about that before?" and then had to run searches to locate the scene I was trying to find. 

Sure enough, I'd discover that in one scene a character was driving a white car and in another scene that car was suddenly blue.  I also discovered that in some places I had written the same scene twice.  That's what happens when you work on a novel over ten years.  You can't remember what you already wrote, and you often don't have the time to read your manuscript from the beginning to find out.  I learned that I rarely had a big enough uninterrupted block of time to read through the entire manuscript before continuing to write it.  I had to choose one or the other.  None of that would have been an issue had I used Scrivener while writing and editing that book.

So, if you are considering purchasing Scrivener software and aren't sure if it is any better than the method you are using now, I'd encourage you to take the plunge, because I'm sure you will find plenty of ways that it can make your writing process easier.  When I first started writing, my choice of tools included using a typewriter or using a pen.  Eventually, I made all my friends jealous by purchasing an electric typewriter with word processing functions.  When my boyfriend, now husband, bought me my first IBM compatible PC with WordPerfect, I was over the moon with how much faster and easier my writing became.  No more White Out!  No more typing and re-typing of multiple drafts!  Then I got my first wireless laptop and was no longer tied to a desk and chair that made my neck and back ache.  Now I have Scrivener software, and am finding nothing but clear skies ahead.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Book Review: A PATCHWORK PLANET by Anne Tyler

A PATCHWORK PLANET was my first exposure to author Anne Tyler.  I was led to her work through a rare interview with her that I read, and her personality intrigued me enough that I had confidence in the quality of her writing.  I researched her books and picked out A PATCHWORK PLANET because the sample chapter struck a chord with me.

I am a very private person.  People who stare, eavesdrop, and snoop have always annoyed me.  Because I want other people to respect my privacy, I always set an example by respecting their privacy.  So, when I read the opening story of A PATCHWORK PLANET, in which the main character got his jollies burglarizing houses in his neighborhood in a unique way, I wanted to know more about what made this character tick.  He did not steal for money.  He broke into people's homes to snoop and take sentimental items.  Somehow, the idea of coming home to find a burglar going through my family photo albums is more disturbing than the idea of finding someone raiding my jewelry box.  The story felt so fresh to me that I couldn't pass it up.

My gamble paid off.  This was the first book I've read in a long time that I had a hard time putting down.  When my Kindle's battery died, I felt like I had just gone through a break up of a long-term relationship, and could not wait for it to recharge so that I could pick up where I left off in the life of Barnaby Gaitlin. 

Ironically, Barnaby finds himself in a position doing odd jobs around the homes of the elderly and disabled.  These people know nothing about his past and have no qualms with giving him spare keys to their homes.

Ultimately, the story is about trust.  Can we as readers trust Barnaby or not?  Can Barnaby trust the other people in his life?  Can they trust him?  Can he trust himself? 

The story weaves back and forth between actions that border on sainthood and actions that show a complete lack of morals on the part of both Barnaby and the other characters in the story.  There seems to be this futile effort of characters trying to change each other, put each other down, bring each other up, and understand each other, even when the characters don't understand themselves.  Anne Tyler's insight into people is truly amazing.

This is the wonderful thing about a well written story:  It resembles a patchwork planet.  We see snippets of a character's life, and while it all seems to be just jumble of different experiences sewn together, it forms one cohesive unit with meaning, lessons, regressions, and growth.  Tyler does an excellent job of showing cause and effect regarding how words and actions affect the feelings, words and actions of others.  Whether the characters in this story are angels, devils, or just plain human is left up for you to decide.

I'm looking forward to reading another one of her books.