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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Being Drawn Down New Paths

I'm an eclectic reader. I like mystery and adventure mostly but certain writers can lure me into genres that I normally avoid. Iain Banks, for instance. I became a huge fan when I read his mainstream novels. I knew he also wrote science fiction as Iain M Banks but that has never been a area in which I had any interest. Nevertheless, because I enjoyed his other work so much, I began to check out his science fiction and found it tremendously appealing. Now, I pre-order anything Iain or Iain M. Banks writes.

I read The Scottish Prisoner, the last of Diane Gabaldon's Outlander series first. This book brings together Jamie Fraser and Sir John Gray as roughly equal main characters. There is nothing in The Scottish Prisoner about time travel although that is a central element of the series. As with science fiction, I've never been attracted by the paranormal. I fell in love with to Sir John Gray so I went back and read all the novels in which he appeared but still put off reading any of the original Outlander books until recently. Finally, I went back to the beginning and am now reading The Outlander, the start of it all. I am captivated and grateful to Sir John for leading me into this journey.

I first read and fell in love with Charlie Huston's Hank Thompson trilogy. Hank is a lovable loser. The books about him are gritty and funny and hip and graphic. I knew Charlie Huston also wrote a series of books about Joe Pitt, a vampire. Vampires are not my cup of tea (except for Anne Rice's Lestat, the exception to my vampire rule) but as with Banks and Gabaldon, I liked Charlie Huston's writing so well, I was willing to take a chance on a completely different genre than usually appeals to me. I'm so glad I did because the Joe Pitt series is terrifically entertaining.

I came to Augusten Burroughs', Dry, by accident. I was on vacation and had read all the books I'd taken along for the ride. At the bookstore, I found nothing new by well loved authors so I was forced to try something different. Dry, a memoir, sounded intriguing. Not only did it prove, in fact, to be intriguing, it was also black and bitter and funny and touching all at the same time. Augusten Burroughs was instantly added to my list of favorite authors. As soon as I got home, I went to and ordered every other book he'd written, both fiction and non-fiction.

It is so easy to get caught in the rut of your usual fare. I still have my list of favorite authors on Amazon and I check them out first. My most anticipated books tend toward daring heroes - spies and assassins and cops - who engage in acts of violence. I will never give up on Eddie Loy and Jack Reacher and Gabriel Allon and Virgil Flowers and Lucas Davenport and Peter Pascoe and Andy Dalziel...well, I could go on and on but now and then an author comes along who can convince me to leave my safety zone and venture into new galaxies and spiritual realms and unfamiliar adventures.

What Kind of Readers are Writers?

A few years ago a list made the rounds of blogs that cater to book lovers and readers - the Top 100 Books of all time. It was estimated that the average person had read no more than six of the top books. I counted and I'd read exactly 50. That sounds like quite a feat, especially since the list tended more toward the literary than the popular, including authors like William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Salman Rushdie, F Scott Fitzgerald, the Bronte sisters, etc.

I think my accomplishment was not quite as monumental as it might have seemed because, out of the 50 I'd read, a lot were old, many of them read when I was in high school, either as homework assignments or because the shelves in the school library were heavy on the classics. I was a voracious reader so I read whatever was available. If that was Bleak House, Tess of the D'Urbervilles or whatever, then so be it. Once I was out of school and free to choose my own reading material, I moved away from the higher-brow stuff and into the mainstream, much of it never to make any kind of "Important" list. Valley of the Dolls anyone?

So, I've read fewer of the later literary works, having lapsed into lighter and, I suppose, trashier fare in my older years (all of Janet Evanovich, for instance).

I wonder though, who it was that composed the List and what the criteria was for getting on it? Two of the modern books on the list that I'd read were: The Lovely Bones by Alice Seibold and  The Five People You Meet in Heaven (by I forget who). I enjoyed both books but I would hardly consider either of them great works of literature in the vein of, say, David Copperfield or even Lolita. By their very nature, lists tend to be snobbish. The compilers always seem to want to convince the world of their superior taste and sensibilities. Lists are created as much to be exclusive as to be inclusive, to shut people out as to bring people in. I would think this list would be intimidating to the average reader who simply isn't going to spend chunks of their precious relaxation time plowing through ponderous novels like War and Peace just because some pretentious list says they should do so if they want to be considered one of the intellectual people.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Whimsical Thoughts About Words and Numbers

            Letters and numbers are the two main ways that humans communicate. Most of us feel innately more comfortable with one or the other. Some lucky people have a natural affinity with both while others have not much ability with either.
             If letters and numbers were political, letters would be the liberals of the communication world. Letters have that easy-going, “live and let live” attitude. They are equal opportunity symbols.  Words don’t mind sharing their environment with other words. They have a generous immigration policy. They think diversity adds spice to a paragraph.
            Words are tolerant about other lifestyles. Wholesome words co-exist happily with their more explicit cousins. Word communities are non-conformist, melding styles and eras. Colonial situated next to Gothic, French next to Spanish, forest green next to shocking pink. Sometimes words go off on tangents when they are under the influence of a mood-enhancing agent but other words shrug off this behavior.  
            Meanwhile, numbers live in gated communities, safe from the messy confusion generated by the words. Number neighborhoods dictate lot size and roof composition. Numbers are inherently conservative. They won’t tolerate deviance by even a thousandth. This is a caste system. Wherever you are born is where you will stay. A two can never hope to climb to a higher rank, say a nine (although they can, of course, achieve a certain amount of upward mobility by marrying a digit from a higher caste).
            Numbers would be aghast at the very idea of numerical synonyms. There is no such thing in Number World as “means almost the same as”. What a sloppy way to think! Nothing like “almost the same as a five”. A five is a five is a five and that, my friend, is that.
            Numbers have protected their heritage since the beginning of time and they see no reason to muddy the gene pool now. They find comfort in always knowing exactly where they stand. (I bet numbers hate the idea that there are a two, a to and a too).
            Words are playful creatures, always evolving and reinventing themselves. The word that meant one thing last century means something completely different today. (Gay, for instance). In addition, completely new words are being born every year.  
            But numbers are the serious species. A two in the 1300’s is still the same as a two in the 21st century. I don’t know enough about the history of numbers to know when man first came up with them but I believe we  utilize combinations of the same ten digits we always used. So far as I know, no new number has been created for eons. There are different types of systems, like Roman numerals, but the actual meaning of each number is the same, whatever symbol is used to represent it, so mathematicians can never mis-communicate, unlike linguists trying to match foreign words.
            Of course, there are professions that try to wrestle words into the same rigid confines as numbers. I typed my son’s papers when he was getting his graduate degree in Psychology. The American Psychological Association has its very own method of grammar, punctuation and citation. Every word in a Psychology paper is exquisitely definition-specific. Every sentence is a section of stone wall, every word a granite boulder.
            At the Sheriff’s Department, I also helped deputies, hoping to become instructors, type papers for the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy. Law enforcement is forced to use words although it actually feels more at one with numbers. As a result, the Academy demands adherence to a strict method of outlining, a technique I’d tried to forget since high school.
            Since then, I’ve dealt mostly with legal papers, written in such complicated legalese that no one without a law degree could possibly hope to comprehend them (which is the point, I guess.)
            All three of these styles are characterized by an unemotional, “just the facts, Ma’am”, philosophy.
             I was always happy to slip back to my projects, where I was my own boss, able to throw words around with abandon, making up the rules as I went along, projecting joy or grief or nostalgia as I chose.
            I believe that computers are beginning to shade the differences between words and numbers. Computer programs are written in a “language” but it is a language of numbers rather than words. Once numbers create the basic program, words take over.  Kids who grow up with computers (and other electronic devices such as cell phones) seem naturally to understand this concept.
            After all these centuries, this intermingling of communication species is allowing us to share information more quickly and effortlessly than ever before. I’m pretty sure words think this is a positive development. I’m not so sure about numbers.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Genres and Other Writing Stuff!

For many years, I wrote only non-fiction, primarily essays and columns, political and social commentary. My specialty was saying more with less.  I loved the challenge of "spending words as if they were dollars". I found some success with that type of writing. I wrote a weekly column for my local paper and a syndicated column for King Features Syndicate. My work appeared in publications such as Newsweek, McCalls, Sports Illustrated and USA Today. Some of my columns won awards; some of them appeared in college textbooks. I was interviewed on radio shows and appeared on television.

I was happy doing what I was doing until, inexplicably, my Muse insisted that I become a novelist. I had a burning idea for a book but I wasn't sure I had it in me to write it. If a column comes up a little short in length, it is relatively easy to add a paragraph. But a 300+ page novel when my strength was in paring, not padding?

 As it turned out, length wasn't a problem. I didn't write Magic Creek; it wrote itself. No notes, no outline, no timeline or characterizations. I just sat down at the computer and it flowed. I was amazed as seemingly irrelevant threads tied themselves in neat little bows as I went along. My conscious mind played no part in that, it all happened beneath the level of my awareness.

When I was done, I had a 103,000-word novel. I have since written seven more. Writing them was the easy part.

Then I embarked on the seemingly impossible task of trying to market my books. Like most new novelists, I mailed out hundreds (maybe thousands by now) of query letters, synopses, proposals and full-length manuscripts to both agents and publishers. The responses I received ranged from bad (a one-paragraph form letter stating that my manuscript didn't meet their needs but they wished me luck elsewhere) to worse  (no response at all).

I had foolishly thought that my non-fiction credentials would count for something, if only to prove that I could successfully string words together. I was wrong. Publishers informed me that they only accepted agented material. Agents informed me that they only accepted manuscripts from published authors. Catch 22.

Then through a writer's discussion group, I met J. T. Kalnay, one of the new breed of of writers who have successfully e-published their books through Smashwords and Amazon. I still had old-school attitudes about ego-driven novelists who self-publish through vanity presses, paying dearly for the privilege of seeing their words in print (though they may be virtually the only ones). Kalnay, who has generously served as my mentor and reviewer, has now become a friend, not to mention one of my favorite authors. He introduced me to the world of e-publishing, a means of by-passing the traditional routes of agent and publisher, by going directly to readers via distributors. Smashwords, for instance, distributes to Apple, Sony, Kobe and Barnes and Noble, among others. (Check out Kalnay's Amazon page here to see how a professional page should look - JT Kalnay). I will write a blog about the process of self-publishing soon but suffice it to say that I have now self-published two of my novels at no cost. Smashwords publishes step-by-step guidelines that make it doable even for a non-techie like me.

Of course, whether you self-publish or try to market your work to a traditional publisher, some things remain the same and one of those is wrestling with the dreaded genre dilemma. Genre is the category of book your novel will be slotted into.Years ago, there were five main genres: romance, mystery, western, science fiction and mainstream. Of course, within those headings, there were divisions such as historical romances and police procedurals and space operas, etc. The point was, though, that everything that didn't fit precisely into any of these specific types was lumped into the catch-all category - Mainstream. Back then, that's what you aspired to in hopes of capturing the broadest cross-section of readers. Now, the genre titles have gotten narrower and narrower and whether you are attempting to market to a publisher or upload your book to Amazon or Smashwords, you'd better know exactly where it fits into the scheme of things. The all-encompassing Mainstream just doesn't cut it anymore.

Is your novel Dystopian or a Milesean tale? (Do you even know what those are?)  Is it Steampunk or Cyberpunk or Clockpunk? (Huh?) Does it fit into a YA or an LGBT category? (Young Adult or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgendered) Is it Epic or Apocalyptic? Your romance can't just be a plain old garden variety Romance - it must be a Contemporary Romance or a Paranormal Romance or a Historical Romance or Erotica. There are divisions within divisions within divisions of genres.

I don't want to deal with all this. My book is just a story. It has some elements of a lot of different genres. I hate trying to shove it into a tight little slot like forcing a crossword puzzle piece into a hole where it doesn't fit. My hero is not quite a hero. He has some heroic qualities but he has a lot of flaws too...and he isn't redeemed in the end. There are erotic scenes but the novel doesn't exist for the primary purpose of stringing them together. The name of my first book is Sociopath? The question mark is there so readers can decide for themselves.

What audience will your book appeal to? That is one of the main questions publishers ask and if you self-publish, you're advised to ask it of yourself. Readers who bought what other books will also buy your book? Well, hell, I don't know. My book deals with sex and taboo subject matter. Does that mean the readers of the The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy would like it. That would certainly be nice! Sociopath? features some prominent gay and lesbian characters. So, would LGBT readers enjoy it? My main character is a NASCAR driver. There are lots of NASCAR fans. Would they buy it because of that?

You could be writing another book with all the time you have to spend debating whether this one is a bild ungsroma (coming of age), urban fantasy or wuxia (ha!ha!-look it up!) or trying to delve into the minds of readers to predict their reactions.