Spring…finally

and just in time for summer. Right now, the temperature is nearing eighty degrees and some heavy storms are due to come in from the southwest. Spring in the Northeast, however, (or at least my portion of the Northeast) has been a bit sporadic and slow in coming, with a hard freeze less than two weeks ago. Yes, in May. In the past two weeks, though, the trees have really begun filling in and this past week my flowers are showing their promise.

Can I remember what this flower is called? No. The tag I kept in the soil is long gone, but I am so happy to see they have returned to grace my somewhat unkempt garden.

The tiny ants are hard at work on my peonies. They haven’t yet reached the “marshmallow” stage, but I am hoping to see them begin blooming soon.

These are usually among the earliest to appear in my garden and I love their purple hue. A couple of days ago, there were only a few buds.
And we can never discount the lovely wildflowers. They may not be growing quite where I’d like them to be, but they nurture so many creatures I wouldn’t dream of removing them.
And my old favorite from my blog about the Chicken Teapot has become quite abundant, spreading beautifully and with no assistance from me–only nature.

Bemoaning Change

One might think from this blog’s title that I am adverse to change. In general, I am not. Change can be good. Medical advances are a good thing, for one. So is a change of scenery (believe me).

But I wish to address the changes that have been going on for quite a while in the publishing industry.  I’m not talking about all the self-publishing opportunities that allow everyone and his brother to put a book up for sale, sometimes with disastrous results and other times with an astonishing new work being released into the world. Nor am I talking about the trend for many publishers to release books in print-on-demand only. I think I’ve addressed the downfall of that practice for the author in another blog. The change I wish to point out is that in which publishers have decided the best practice is to release as many books by a known author as can be crammed into a single year. Once, publishers allowed an author the time to write their best work possible. Recently, it’s become a matter of requiring authors to write the best work possible in the time allowed.

And it shows.

We, as authors, have a procedure we follow, emotionally, mentally, physically. Sometimes the germ of an idea is just that, and possibly never meant to come to fruition. Now, however, an author must grasp that germ and force a book from it in order to meet the required quota.

And it shows.

I recently started to read a book by an author I’ve enjoyed in the past. I am on chapter six and ready to quit. Actually quit, not go back, not find out what happens next or at the end, nor what occurs with the many semi-secondary characters that have been introduced in the most minute detail, right down to the color shirt, the brand of sneakers, the trouser or dress style, the hairdo (dating myself here), the shape of their eyeglasses, the things they like to eat, page after page. All these things are introduced not as part of the action, moving the story forward, but in what I can only term as list fashion. He was wearing this, and this, and this. She was wearing this, and this, and this. Oh, and that guy over there? He was wearing this and this and this and was about this tall, but we will never hear about him again. Description, I must say, without point, especially since, for me, those characters are forgotten as the page is turned.

Why would an author whose stories I’d previously thought riveting, whose style was quick and to the point, enhancing the thriller, suddenly inject so much unnecessary information into each and every page? Since I am only on chapter six, perhaps I’m not being fair. I might skip ahead in the book to see if I’m right—certainly not to find out what happens in this story because frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn.

As to why an author would do this: word count. In the unfortunate scenario requiring authors to hasten their work along, expand that useless germ that should have been cast aside or at the very least been allowed to fully form before being shaped into the contractual hasty book, authors find themselves not meeting the required word count. Thus, the book is padded.

And it shows.

The publisher pushes the book out the door in this condition and into the hands of the likely to be disappointed masses. Likely, I say, because I may be wrong and will therefore refrain from speaking in absolutes. But I am right for me, and as I paid good money for the book in question, I will permit myself to feel what I feel. In deference to the author, however, I will not divulge the name, for the very reason that my opinion may not ring true among the remaining readership. I may even go so far as to say I will probably check out the next book to come down the assembly line in the hope this was only an off day for the author. Off day is an exaggeration, but not by much. There are only so many days in the year and if you’re required to put out six or seven books in that timeframe, well…

It shows.

Reading as a Writer

Recently, I started and became a member of a family book club with planned monthly Zoom meetings. This past Sunday was our first. Let me say up front it was great fun. Cousins all, we enjoyed spending the time together, not only discussing the book but checking out one cousin’s latest crafting, briefly talking about football (well, I wasn’t, but I listened really well after asking who the heck was actually playing in the Super Bowl) and reminiscing.

The majority of the meeting did seem to be focused on the book we’d read, though. Amazing how many differing opinions there can be about the same work, especially when the book is a genre in which the reader doesn’t usually have an interest. Once we got past the general opinion that the characters’ drinking (and loving) lake water was the most disgusting thing imaginable, everyone got into an emphatic discussion regarding the various characters, the shortcomings in the tale, the aspects they enjoyed and what they all felt to be an unsatisfactory ending. They verbalized being let down by not knowing exactly what happened, not only to the unlikable character whose inner thoughts ended the story, but with the turmoil left behind by the discovery and consequence from long-ago actions. I had previously been satisfied with the conclusion. I’m not saying I’ve changed my mind, but the debate definitely provided me with an appreciation regarding viewpoint. This is why discussion is good. It opens you up to recognizing a perspective other than your own.   

When the meeting looked to be winding down, my cousin Bobby asked a pointed question of me. He wanted to know what I thought about the book from a writer’s standpoint.

Ummmm…

All kidding aside, I was quick to answer. I told him I don’t read books as a writer, that I read them to be entertained and enjoyed, which is a true statement, but perhaps one requiring a little more explaining (you have some ‘splaining to do, Lucy).

As a child I used to read books I enjoyed ten or more times for the sheer love of the words written, the story told. At some point during these multiple reads I started to absorb why I loved the words written and the story told. Eventually I looked to them with a conscious eye to discovery, to learn how these wonderful worlds were created, how words made magic. I suppose at that point it became impossible to separate the reader from the writer in my brain.

Even so, immersion in my craft didn’t mean I no longer read books for the joy experienced (or the heartache, or the anger, or the thrills—whatever the author chose to evoke). However, I do sometimes find myself rereading a passage with conscious recognition as to the absolute beauty and writing skill defined therein. I can’t help that reaction. It is, after all, who I am.

But if and when I identify good writing or poor writing ,or note, sometimes with a screeching halt, typos, unintentionally poor sentence structure, glaring errors such as a character’s eyes being blue on one page and green two chapters on, plot failure, disappointing endings, etc., it doesn’t mean I’m doing so because I am a writer. We, as readers, notice all these things. I was a reader before I made the conscious decision to write. I enjoy reading books. My enthusiasm or disappointment comes from the reader in me, and yes, quite possibly the writer as well, but not as separate, conscious entities. The writer and the reader don’t sit on my shoulders like cartoon angels and devils, spouting out arguments in my ears. The writer and the reader are intertwined unless otherwise directed. They live in reasonably happy cohabitation.

So, when asked about reading as a writer, the above is my expanded reply. With that addressed, let’s move onto the next book, the next read. Cousins, I just ask that you don’t make it one of mine. The reader in me would be fine with it, but I’m not so sure the writer could take your brutal honesty. 🙂

Procrastination? Maybe later.

There was a time in my life when I never put off until tomorrow what I could do today. In fact, it drove me a bit nuts to put off until tomorrow. Perhaps that is why I found myself so productive, completing projects, working full-time at my day job, writing at night, crafting and keeping up with the house and garden. Whew. Makes me tired just reading that sentence.

Then things happened. First, there was an accident that required two surgeries to my arm. Plans changed. I couldn’t do everything I wanted to with one arm, although I tried. Believe me, I tried. Still, I was forced to prioritize. When my garden went to heck in a hand basket, I had to suck it up. Not that I did. I railed against the state of it constantly in my head and occasionally out of it, but really, I did have to suck it up, tell myself that later I would get to it. The same went for my crafting. Painting pictures was, well, out of the picture. I continued to work with one hand and taught myself to physically write with the left during this time, but then, my day job wasn’t something I could put off. It had to be done. Putting off the rest was the first step toward being a procrastinator.

Wasn’t it?

Then the second, and worse, thing happened a couple years later. Injured in a motor vehicle accident, my brain stopped functioning the way had I gotten used to it behaving for all the years my brain and I have been acquainted. This went way beyond my previous temporary physical disability. My brain was letting me down left and right and in the beginning I couldn’t even get angry about it, because I couldn’t hold a cognitive thought long enough to maintain that emotion. I was scared though. Plenty scared. That popped up quite frequently.

Three years have passed since that awful day, and I am doing much better. Still not where I was, and perhaps I never will be again, but definitely better. And yet, I’m still a procrastinator. What happened to that “do it now or kick yourself in the ass for not” attitude? I’m thinking maybe priorities have now changed to the point where I can’t get them back. That makes sense, I suppose. Or maybe I need to write down my plans for the day on a note (which I had to do in detail for quite a while—did I abandon that practice too soon?) so I can check off each thing as I do it, reminders staring me in the face.

Or maybe I’m just tired.

Take my blogging for instance. I made a non-New Year’s resolution to keep up with it, to at least complete that short form of writing twice weekly. I do so love to write (I’ve even gotten back to long form writing, but not the huge chunks I used to do while working full-time, taking care of the house and garden, crafting, painting, etc., that I managed before—I mean, I finished three novels in an eight-month period for Kensington while working full-time, taking care of the house and garden, and, yeah, all the rest). I actually blogged about my blogging plans not much more than a month ago and yet here I am, having gone a week and a half without so much as a peep. The ideas are there, the will is there, but there’s a disconnect these days between thinking about something and following through with action.

Put it off, my dear, put it off, get to it later.

Is that actually what I’m doing? I don’t know. I’ll figure it out tomorrow.

Music in the written word

To me, the written word is like music. It has a beat, a melody, a rhythm, a pattern. Changing any of these can make or break a mood, or cause the reader to wonder at what point the character has strayed from his or her true self.

When I write, there’s a certain cadence. I don’t follow one deliberately, but it blooms as the tale’s true voice. I don’t sit there and tap out a beat and make my words follow it. I can’t even imagine how work would screech to a halt if I did. It happens, though, through some unconscious process.

I’ll often read passages aloud that I’ve written, ones that don’t seem quite right, and usually it’s because the pattern has broken down. Other times I read them with joy because they are singing. I guess I may be listening with a different type of ear altogether.

There are times, of course, when pattern is deliberately altered, the same way it might be in musical composition, leading the listener (as with the reader) in a certain direction or to make them recognize a particular atmosphere or frame of mind. One couldn’t compose a concerto with the same three notes and hope for success, after all (although there is probably music out there somewhere that would prove me quite wrong).

Right now, I’m working on a young adult novel told in first person with three points of view. The one character’s beat is a bit shattered, somewhat chaotic, with stretches of lyricism, indicating his damaged, hectic but methodical mind. Another’s has a pounding cadence interspersed with surprisingly elegant interludes. He possesses a lumbering acceptance of life occasionally spattered with guilt and sparkling revelation. The third is eloquent, filled with the poeticism of her soul, but yet her music falters, too, when appropriate to the moment. As I’ve said, I don’t do this deliberately. The music appears with the character in my head and I strongly believe helps identify his or her voice to the reader, as well as to me.

I’m positive I’m not the only writer to recognize the music in writing, or to acknowledge its value. When I was young and first reading, the books with the most distinct rhythm were those I enjoyed the most. There was rhyme, yes, but with rhyme there exists, usually and especially in children’s books, rhythm. Perhaps that’s where it all began for me, the connection between writing and music’s flow—with Green Eggs and Ham.

I Smell Snow

Some of you might recognize that line as coming from Lorelai Gilmore’s mouth in the much loved (or hated–it was one of those shows that pushed a person one way or the other–I don’t know anyone who watched it and came out of the experience middle-of-the-road) Gilmore Girls. Me? I’m one of the former. I was thrilled when the series was revisited by Netflix in the four part mini-series with so many of the original cast members. It took a little getting used to the rapid-fire dialogue again, but I fell right back into the pattern in short order.

But I digress (as usual).

This blog is only to share some photos of the snow I took this morning. Last snowfall was a fizzle here, went from snow to ice to rain to ice to snow… We ended up with an inch or so of slush that froze over and made for dangerous walking. For many on the East Coast, though, and in the South and elsewhere in the country, that recent snow was hazardous, causing stranded motorists, power outages, and worse, so I’m not making light of it. I’m only saying I had hoped we’d have a little more than we ended up with, because I do so like snow under most circumstances.

Today’s snow isn’t supposed to add up to much either, and started with some rain and ice, but it looked quite pretty for a while so I stepped outside my door and grabbed a few photos during the best of it. My favorite is the one that serves as a header to this blog.

Word Count… Really?

I know. Why should there be limitations on how many words are used to tell a particular story? Truly, there aren’t. It’s your story, after all, so you can go on and on and on and on—and on, as long as it serves your tale, right? Well, yes and no.

Adhering to word count isn’t an issue when you’re writing something for yourself, family or friends to read. I’m not saying that’s the only reason you shouldn’t concern yourself with word count, but it is the one time you can count on it not to matter (or at least you can hope it doesn’t—ask a family member at what point in your 200,000 word cozy mystery they tuned out and you might get an idea why genre and word count have such a strict relationship).

And, of course, there are authors out there who, due to their renown or the stupendous stories they weave, will be permitted to exceed expected word count without so much as a peep. There’s nothing wrong with that. We enjoy their stories nonetheless. Their talent shines through. But for mere mortals who are struggling to get published, there are rules and boundaries and expectations.

Even the self-published author might consider keeping their suspense novel to no longer than 75,000 words because, in most cases, those of us looking to read suspense have come to expect the length. Too short, and you’re feeling cheated; too wordy, and the only suspense might be the unfound answer to the constantly circling question in your head as to when it’s all going to end.

There are reasons why publishers have placed word count limits for their various imprints or editorial lines. Experience, naturally, and reader expectation, and some limits ultimately reflect the bottom line (printing costs). Because of this, guidelines regarding length are rather stringent. Self-publishing affords an author more leeway, certainly, but one should still be cognizant of what a reader has come to expect in terms of story length.

For example, let’s say you write romance. Harlequin is a well-known publisher of romance, with various lines. Their Intrigue line is for high-stake thrillers. Word count: 55,000—fast read, fast action. The Harlequin Historical line requires a word count of between 70,000 and 75,000 words. A historical romance (or fiction in general) has more scenery to it, more backdrop in which the characters interact. It moves at a different pace (not dragging, though, or you’ve dropped the ball somewhere else along the line). My novel, Once and Always, a historical set in India in the 19th century, was published by Kensington and consisted of 110,000 words. Each publisher has their own limits. I am only citing these as examples.

Science fiction and fantasy novels require quite a bit of world-building and the usual word count for one of these is 90,000 to 120,000 words. Thrillers generally run about 70,000 words. Cozy mysteries top off at between 50,000 to 60,000 words, although if they’re a bit shorter, no one’s complaining. The length still works. Are mystery novels your forte? Keep it to about 80,000 words. There are, however, mystery sub-genres with varied word counts. In fact, there are exceptions to all of the above, whether because of the story you’re telling, or because a particular publishing house has its own outlines for their needs.

To sum it up, if you’ve written (or are planning to write) the next great [fill in genre here­] novel and are seriously looking to have it published by some other means than self-publishing, take a check on word count to see if you’re in the ball park before submitting. Seriously, you could find your work rejected because it doesn’t fit within the word count parameter. If the novel is exceptional, though, you might have an editor asking you to tweak it to fit the boundaries. You know what I say to that? Don’t take the moral high ground. Sit and think about it for a (little) bit. They are, after all, the professionals. You might actually want to work with them and take their advice.

So, as always, research your market. Research, research, research, and always write the best you can and then write it again.

Until next time folks, have a great week!

Writing – How Goes That Short Story?

Last week, I was blathering on about starting at the beginning, but not necessarily the beginning, or something like that. I’d suggested an assignment, writing a 500-word short story and I did manage to write one. It’s not outstanding, but it does have all the elements needed, beginning in the middle of action, paragraphs that allow the reader to get into the character’s head, understand a bit about her motivation, her personality, her attitude and maybe a hint at the reason for it. There is immediate introduction to the “protagonist” as well. The story is set up, progresses, reaches a climax and resolves in 500 words. Understanding these elements will help a writer no matter the tale’s length (next week’s blog will be about word count and genre, which could be helpful to someone out there). Believe me, I learned the hard way.

I had also said that I would get into ways to “cut the fat” in the writing endeavor, especially the short story. As my eyes droop, I realize this will require more discussion in another blog. However, one way to cut extraneous words is to recognize that they are such. You must be your best first editor. Adjectives and adverbs are great (I use a lot when blogging, because they can be so much fun), but not often necessary to get the point across. Also, can you find a way for a thought or action to be complete without expounding on all the motivations for it? Back story has no real place in a shortened tale, and it is important to dive right into the main character’s reason for being there in your work. If you tried the 500-word story exercise, were you able to edit out those words, sentences, phrases that ultimately did nothing more than increase word count rather than move the story forward? If you did, that’s great, because the same editing will help in all your writing. Like I said, I learned the hard way.

Well, that’s going to be it for now. I ran behind in preparing my blog for this week and the hour is getting late, but I hope this is enough information to keep your interest until next week’s blog. In the meantime here is my short story, for what it’s worth.

Perspective by Robin Maderich

I stop short, my heels skidding on the icy sidewalk. Rubber heels, yes, but soles without tread. I should know better. I am an adult, fully responsible and all that. Lucky for me I manage to save myself and my packages, smashing bags against my abdomen in a crushing grip.

Every year the Christmas season becomes less joyful and more stressful. The guy screaming at the parking meter a dozen feet away truly isn’t helping me feel any jollier.  Jollier is a word. I’ve looked it up. It’s a comparative adjective. Why do I bother looking up words, you ask? Try spending two hours every day on the bus commuting to work. My pocket dictionary has become my steadfast companion. I vowed to make myself smarter when I bought it. Don’t ask me how I’m doing. The answer should be obvious. No tread on my boots, after all, and the snow falling at an inch an hour.

At least I’m wearing a hat. A fuzzy knit hat designed for fashion rather than warmth, but it provides some protection, working great at catching snow, allowing it to build and build until, well, it doesn’t anymore and slush skids down my cheeks and into the hood I’ve neglected to pull up. Yes, I’m having the best day in the most wonderful time of the year. Although, I suppose my day’s not as bad as the one the guy now punching the meter is having. He’s still swearing. I can hear him despite the traffic in the street and the snow clumping around my ears.

I need to get past him. Unless I want to backtrack, cross the street at the light, make my way up the blasted hill once again with all my packages and then struggle back over to this side where my car sits only about thirty feet beyond him and his uncontrolled anger, this is exactly what I have to do. The very idea, however, turns my bowels to jelly. I talk big, act like I can conquer anything with the holiday chip on my shoulder, but really, I can’t. His display scares me silly.

So I stare at him, undecided. And in the next minute the worst happens. His focus turns on me.

A word slips past my lips. Not a comparative adjective but a good, old-fashioned four-letter word that is used as verb, adjective, and adverb, handy for many occasions. His red-rimmed eyes are wide. The color deepens on his cheeks to rust. His mouth opens. I try to suck in a breath, maybe to scream. He takes a step toward me, and then another. I stand there, foolishly believing my many Christmas packages might shield me.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

I—what?

“I’m sorry,” he says again. His head bows. “My wife passed away three weeks ago. This is my first Christmas without her.”

All my breath rushes out. I leave my packages behind me in the snow and take his hands in mine.

Next week: Writing – Word Count – Really?