Observations on a Not-So-Good Novel

I'm reading a novel published by a smaller press.  Sometimes the reason why novels don't get picked up by a big publishing house (or picked up at all) is a mystery. But in this particular case I have some thoughts.  Its really a very good novel in many ways–compelling subject, lots of conflict, interesting situation.  Yet there are a few things that jump out at me, and in this, I'm realizing, it is as instructive to read a not-so-good novel as a top of the line one.  So here goes.

Cardboard characters.  This is not always true all the time, but in too many instances the author isn't able to create fully rounded characters.  What makes a fully rounded character, you ask?  Excellent question.  Too bad there's not an easy answer.  But in this novel, the characters tend to be all bad or all good.  A couple of them seem like stand-ins for idyllic causes.  Also, at times they don't act credibly.

Unbelievable actions and responses.  Sometimes the characters in this novel don't act believably.  Their actions seem to be devised for the sake of the author to move them around or to create more conflict, but its not conflict that is organic to the story and thus doesn't ring true.

Superficial viewpoint
.  No glaring viewpoint violations, but the viewpoint lapses at times, nonetheless, because the author hasn't thought through exactly what the character would see or know.  Sometimes a viewpoint character describes things about the location that, given the fact she just moved there, she wouldn't know. 

Meandering scenes.  The scenes aren't well thought out.  They don't spike, or drop.  Often they start with one emotional tone and end on the same one.  There's no movement. In addition, sometimes there's a monotony to the the order of the scenes.  They are like the same size pearls strung on a necklace, when they'd have more spice if the necklace featured all different size beads.  Just as a scene must have rising or falling action within, so to must the order of the scenes.

And yet, I'm still reading the book.  Why?  I think the main reason is that the author does manage to create a compelling viewpoint character most of the time.  And the conflict that the character faces is well presented. 

So if you find yourself reading a "bad" novel or even a not-so-good one, see if you can define what it is that makes it bad.  You might learn a lot about your own writing in the process.

Guest Post: Writing About Music

Today's guest post comes from my Welsh friend Derek Ayre, hypnotherapist, musician, and writer extraordinaire.  Visit his music site here.   (My spell checker goes nuts over his British spelling, but I like it so I've left it in.)

Writing About Music

by Derek Ayre

Music is one of the great loves of my life and I have been playing pianos and digital keyboards since the age of about 5. But love piano playing as I may, I had this feeling that it was going to be one of the most difficult subjects to write about. This is probably because throughout my life, whenever anybody has asked me what my piano playing was like, I could simply sit down at the piano and literally show and not tell by playing the music. If a picture paints a thousand words, then so does a piano – when it is being played of course!

And so it came about that one day, I was looking for a suitable subject to blog about and I was considering a piece of advice I had so often heard in my writing classes. “Write what you know”, and I had this idea about writing all about music and piano keyboards, so I opened a new blog called The Clavinova Piano and Keyboard Blog.

Writing my first entry was easier said than done and the first thing I did was to look back through all my old music books I had used when I was a kid for some inspiration. It took quite a lot of brainstorming to come up with a post that was going to be interesting to non-musicians and those who were merely toying with the idea, about learning to play. Even my music teacher had a prop in the form of a Steinway grand piano! And after she had taught me how to name notes and recognise their value and pitch she merely said, “OK, now you play it”. And then when I made a mistake, she would either take my finger and place it on the correct note, or say no more than “start from the top again”. Words were rarely uttered during a music lesson and the written word came in the form of red writing on my music copies with terse statements such as, “watch your timing!” or “take care” and then there were crude sketches of a pair of eyes, to save her having to write “watch your timing” or “take care”. A person of few words, written or spoken, but words or no words, she was a good teacher, I must admit. But I digress…

After scratching my head for a day or two and searching around the Internet for inspiration, I came up with the idea of creating for my first blog post and titled it, Clavinova Piano, explaining what a clavinova piano was and what it would do. I suppose I was fortunate having one of these instruments, because had they not been invented, it would have been a pretty lame post that would be entitled, What is a Piano?   Everybody knows what a piano is.  And my idea was to introduce to my readers what could be done with a digital piano and why it was worth purchasing one and learning to play it. I could then see what interest the blog generated and decide whether or not to continue with the subject.

Once the blog went live, and I had got it recognised by Google as actually existent, I was surprised at the interest it generated and I even had some comments left in the first few days. Not bad, I thought, for a brand new blog that I never thought I would ever find anything to write about. However, I made a dreadful mistake on the control panel of the blog and deleted the post!  All the comments went with it, and I hadn’t even responded to them or taken note of who they were from. But it wasn’t quite back to square one, I had saved my work in my word processor, so it was just a matter of cutting and pasting it back into the blog.   Now, less than a month later, I am becoming more and more aware and inspired about things to write about in the world of music playing and will never again pay heed to my sceptical mind saying, “I don’t know what to write about!”

http://clavinovapiano.muxgo.com/

Um, About Those Ads on This Blog…

I don't necessarily agree with them, okay?  Google Adsense puts them up and you know Google and their spiders, they crawl around and pick up keywords and choose ads accordingly.  If you have Gmail, you know how creepily accurate their spiders are–whatever the topic of your email conversation is, the ads are tailored accordingly.

So apparently my blog post about Jill Biden being a writing teacher has attracted some ads for people I don't necessarily support.  People whose names start with M and who think that women will vote for any ole woman, doesn't matter if she only has 20 months of experience as a governor and before that ran a town that had as many moose as people in it.

And of course, now that I'm writing about Jill Biden again, I'm just going to make the situation worse and the spiders will crawl again and there will be more ads. 

So just know that I support free speech and all that and I never would have written about Jill Biden in the first place were she not a writing teacher, but I don't have anything to do with the ads that run on this site.

And while we are at, can we all focus on what is truly, truly important tonight and send our love and thoughts and prayers to people all along the Gulf Coast who are facing Gustav? 

A Writing Teacher for Vice-Presidential Spouse

Not to be partisan here, since this is not a blog about politics, but I just learned that Jill Biden, the wife of vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden in case you hadn't guessed, teaches writing.  She teaches writing at a community college and she has mad plans to keep a diary about her experiences on the campaign trail:

"I teach writing, so you can beat that I am going to journal this experience every chance I get."

Do we love this?  Huh? Huh?  Yes we do.  I'm just certain that having a woman who is a writing teacher and a journaler near one of the highest offices in the land is a good thing. 

Besides which, she seems like a pretty amazing woman.  She married Joe five years after his wife and baby daughter were killed in a car accident and raised his two surviving sons.  Along the way she had a child or her own, taught at a community college and earned her PhD. 

Read the People magazine interview with the Obamas and the Bidens here.

Sharpening Pencils

This morning I was working on my daily 15 minutes devoted to the realization that I have no logic skills whatsoever, otherwise known as solving a Sudoku puzzle, when it occurred to me that my pencils needed sharpening.

Now I'm bad enough at Sudoku without having also to contend with blurry-pointed pencils.  The boxes in which you fill in the numbers are very small, you see, and you need to fit many numbers in each one as you keep track and erase and figure and re-figure.  So you need a very sharp pencil.

I have a container full of pencils conveniently stationed in the kitchen, where the Sudoku madness solving goes on but for some reason the pencils are never sharp.  (Could it be because my son the mathematician uses them to solve math equations?  You tell me.)

So it occurred to me to hie myself down the basement to where we have a good old-fashioned hand-cranked pencil sharpener on the wall, bolted there by previous occupants, many, many years ago.  (The fact that you must walk into the basement, which is dark and scary and full of belongings we don't know what to do with, plus has an open crawl space which you have to pretend to ignore, est the monsters jump out at you if you catch their eye,  might also have something to do with the fact that the pencils are never sharp.)

To get to the pencil sharpener you have to lean way over the washing machine and insert the pencil.  I'd taken a whole handful down with me, hoping to not have to repeat this exercise for quite awhile, not liking monsters real well and having perfecting the art of going a long time without washing clothes, and so I began sharpening the pencils.  And it occurred to me, as I struggled, because it also turns out that sharpening pencils via a hand-cranked pencil sharpener is a bit of a struggle, that sharpening pencils is a bit like writing.

Why?

I shall tell you. 

Firstly, if you force the pencil, it doesn't sharpen as well.  You have to hold it ever so delicately without cramming it into the hole.  If you just allow the pencil to rest lightly in the sharpener and crank like crazy, you get a perfectly sharpened pencil.  So, too, with writing.  If you force the words, they never sound right.  You need to learn to relax when you are holding the pencil in the pencil sharpener and you need to learn to relax when you are holding pen in hand to write.  And then crank out the words like mad.

Second, if the pencil gets sharpened unevenly from the beginning, it is difficult, bordering on the impossible, to ever get the damn thing to be sharpened correctly again.  Have you had this experience with writing?  I have.  Until I get the beginning shaped right, I can't write the rest of it.  Even though I am the biggest advocate of letting the words flow on the planet, I can't help it.  The beginning has to be right before the words can flow.  And so too with pencils.

Thirdly, it is really a pain to sharpen pencils, but the Sudoku solving goes so much better when I do.  Its important to have the right tools in writing, and since we don't need much beyond paper and pencil, choose your metaphoric tools wisely–your words and your technique, your craft and your grammar.

So those are the lessons I learned sharpening pencils this morning.  Oh, and one final one–it is important always to be up on current technology.  I'm buying an electric pencil sharpener. 

Rejection: Tempting the Fates

So, I wrote a post about Michael Phelps last week and how he used rejection and ridicule (who's laughing now, twitty teenagers who made fun of him?  Huh? Huh?) to spur himself on.  I mentioned that perhaps we writers could take a page from ol' Michael's book and use that same technique when we get rejected ourselves.

Ah, the universe is such a trickster.

Because it was only a few short days later that I got a rejection from an agent. 

This wasn't a nice rejection, where the agent makes a few pithy suggestions about how to improve the novel.  It wasn't even a rejection that was signed by the agent.  It was a flippin' form letter. 

I haven't gotten a form letter rejection in ages.  To make matters worse, this particular agent is known for representing many of the mentors and alumni of the MFA program I attended. 

And I get a flippin' form letter from her.

The funny thing is, I found the letter in the stack of mail and I knew.  First of all, the  SASEs are a dead give-away and immediately recognizable.  But I swear, the energy of the rejection was contained on the envelope itself, and I knew without even opening it what the result was going to be.

I whined and moaned a bit on Twitter and my tweeples cheered me up.  And then I realized I'd written that post about Michael Phelps and loftily suggested we all emulate him when it came to rejection.

So now I'm going to.  Watch out New York publishing world, cuz I'm mad!  I'm angry, and I'm inspired and, just like Michael (I think we can all call him Michael now, don't you?) I'm going to use this anger to fuel my success.

Oh, there's just one drawback that occurs to me.  Michael can train harder, swim harder, eat more calories for breakfast and go out there and break records all by his little own self.  I can write harder, write better, send my novel out more, obsess about eating too much for breakfast, and I still can't necessarily achieve success all by my little own self.  I need an agent. 

That's the rub about the publishing industry and the film biz–you can put your heart and soul into it and still you have to rely on someone else to recognize your brilliance. 

So I guess all I can do is do my best and work my hardest and let the universe, trickster that it is non-withstanding, make things happen.

And be grateful I don't have to spend hours every day swimming.  I love my man Michael, but I'm the worst swimmer in the world.

Patting Myself on the Back

And may I now direct your attention to the right of this post, to the brand spanking new sign-up box? 

I'm very excited to offer you a free report, 100 Questions to Jump Start Your Writing, when you sign up for me newsletter.

There's good reason to do this, because it will be full of information about upcoming events, writing (ya think?) and also news about forthcoming products from moi, such as an Ebook I am about to publish called Set The Words Free.

The main reason I'm patting myself on the back, however, is that poor little ole un-techy me actually figured out how to create an autoresponder and sign-up box all by myself.  I subscribed to Aweber, and if any of you need to create newsletters, autoresponders, or marketing campaigns for your sites or blogs, I highly recommend them.   They have great, clear, step-by-step directions that you can print out and follow along.  Trust me, if I can do it, anybody can.  It actually was kinda fun. 

Now I really love getting emails saying that people have signed up so humor me and do it.  I promise, promise, promise that your information is safe with me and will never get out of my clutches.  They'll have to kill me before I divulge your information, I swear it!

Okay, I might not be willing to defend your email address to my death, but close.

Please note: if you signed up on the old sign-up form I had, please re-sign-up.   Aweber is very picky about what addressed they will let you import, as well they should be, so it is easier just to start fresh.  Besides, though it pains me to admit, there weren't that many of you.

Now that I'm offering something for free, I feel certain you will sign up.  Right? Am I right?  Prove me right!

Robin’s Publication Day!

This is an exciting day for my friend Robin Gideon.  Aspen Mountain Press is releasing her novel,
Silky Sins: Cassandra's Story.  Its a sizzling contemporary erotic romance and you can download it in ebook format and get it immediately.

Robin is absolutely amazing–she has an incredible list of books coming out over the next few months, and I personally, am a very bright kelly green with envy.   Robin and I met during my brief stint as an erotic romance editor.  I plucked Silky Sins out of the slush pile and knew immediately that Robin was a winner.  Her subsequent success has proven me correct!

Stay tuned for reviews and interviews with Robin on Bookstrumpet.  And go buy her book, it'll make your weekend.

Do You Think He Needs A Ghostwriter?

Michael Phelps is writing a book.

I'm guessing, just a wild stab, that somewhere near Baltimore a ghostwriter hit the jackpot and will spend the next month hanging on every word Phelps says.  They are getting this baby out in time for Christmas, so its obvious Phelps is not going to write it himself. 

The book is going to be called Built to Succeed, and it'll outline his philosophy of training as well as his life being raised by a single mother.

By the way, that single mother is to blame for a wee little shopping spree I took yesterday.  Women of a certain age, such as myself, are greatly enamored of shopping at Chico's for a variety of reasons.  Chico's clothes have a certain, highly recognizable look to them.  Every time I saw Debbie Phelps sitting in the stands, I'd think, she's wearing Chico's.

Well, I was right.  And the company figured this out, too, and immediately put together the Debbie Phelps Collection on their website.

Pretty brilliant marketing, don't you think?

I was reading about that yesterday and thought, hmm, Chico's, its been awhile.  And I have coupons, too!  Maybe I could just take one tiny little look at the website….

And thus a shopping spree was born. 

I justified it by telling myself I need clothes for the upcoming orientation weekend at the Loft in Nashville, and its true.   And by the way, while I'm speaking of the Loft, our next semester kicks off on September 12th in Nashville.   There's no better way to learn to write than to study one on one with a mentor.

And I'll be stylin', too.

Take A Hint From Michael Phelps

I adore Michael Phelps almost as much as I love his mother.  I think I just love seeing the two of them together because it reminds me of my relationship with my own adored son, Lewis.  There's just something so unique about that mother-son relationship.  Of course, the mother-daughter relationship is special and unique also but that's for another post.

NBC had an extended interview with Phelps this evening, first with Phelps, his coach, and Rowdie Gaines (do we love that name or what?) and then with Phelps and his mother, who it turns out is a middle school principal in Baltimore. 

This interview was particularly illuminating because Phelps and his mother talked about how he was made fun of and bullied through much of his school career.   The other kids mocked his ears, mocked his dedication, mocked his "nerdiness."  But instead of this having a detrimental effect on him, it was actually quite the opposite.  It fueled him to work harder, swim faster, win more.

And this motivation continued throughout his career.  Every time people from other teams (especially those pesky French) talked trash to him in the run-up to the Olympics, he didn't let it get him down.  Instead, the comments motivated him.  His coach figured this out and handed him the articles, with the best quotes highlighted.  Michael would post them at the back of his locker and read them over and over again.

Now, me, I might hear the comments of those trash-talking French swimmers and wither.  I might decide that they are correct.  But Phelps took the opposite tack and we all know the result–8 gold medals at this Olympics only, 14 overall, the most ever by an Olympian. 

Just think about how our writing careers might take a huge leap forward if we used rejection as our fuel and motivation.  If, when you got a rejection from an agent for the novel you have loved and slaved over, you posted that rejection and read it every day and used it to fuel your determination to get your novel published.

I have to admit that I, for one, do not do that.  Instead I think about how stupid that agent is for rejecting me and then I start to wonder if maybe she is really smart and I'm the dumb one for submitting my novel in the first place.  And then I think some more and realize that my novel is such a huge piece of idiocy that even the post man was embarrassed to have to handle it and that I will never, ever, as long as I draw breath on this planet and no doubt any others, publish a novel.

So, hmmm, Phelps' approach or mine, which is the more useful?  Gosh, that's a no-brainer.

So I am going to try the Phelps approach to rejection and adversity.  I'm going to celebrate my next rejection because I will know that it is fueling my efforts to move forward and publish a novel.  I'm going to post that rejection on my bulletin board over my desk and read it often, instead of hiding it in a file cabinet, or burning it.

By the way, just in case, the universe or creator or source or God or goddess is reading this post, can I just say that I would really prefer not to have to put this to the test?  That I can live just fine without another rejection?

But just on the off chance there's another rejection in the offing, I'll let you know how the Phelps Theory works out for me.