Choices and Themes

I’ve written before about symbolism, which can infuse and enrich a story.

Symbolism also reinforces Theme.

Themes are those underlying threads woven throughout a story that give it strength.

When we distill any story down to its themes, we often are surprised how *simple* those themes appear to be.  They don’t seem capable of supporting any story built around them.  But the nature of a good theme is that it’s all about hidden strength that comes out when it’s explored.  Many seemingly simple themes can be quite powerful.

Books often have multiple themes running through them – and often a theme may not even be apparent to the author, or a theme may be perceived by some readers and not others because of the way they identify with the story.

Choice is actually a very common theme that we see crop up in any number of stories.  Choice is extremely powerful because it can take so many different forms.  And its authenticity connects us to the characters we’re reading about, and experience their stories as they make choices we may or may not have ever considered.

Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat was an exploration of choice.  Lestat’s story was driven by the choices he made. And he remained unchanged and unbowing through the end:

I should have listened to Marius’s warning. I should have stopped for one moment to reflect on it as I stood on the edge of that grand and intoxicating experiment: to make a vampire of the “least of these.” I should have taken a deep breath.

But you know, it was like playing the violin for Akasha. I wanted to do it. I wanted to see what would happen, I mean, with a beautiful little girl like that!

Oh, Lestat, you deserve everything that ever happened to you. You’d better not die. You might actually go to hell.

But why was it that for purely selfish reasons, I didn’t listen to some of the advice given me? Why didn’t I learn from any of them – Gabrielle, Armand, Marius? But then, I never have listened to anyone, really. Somehow or other, I never can.

Just as Lestat was a victim of self-inflicted wounds by an incessant desire to make choices just to see what would happen, the character of Johnny Smith in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone is haunted by his reluctance to make a choice.  King wove in the Biblical tale of Jonah and the whale for a very good reason.  The reluctant hero of any story often knows that bravery may not always be rewarded, and that sacrifices may be called for rather than redemption.

Choice is what leads every person along the paths that unfold beneath our very feet.

We make countless choices in any given day – many quite inconsequential – shall I sit on the couch with a book or just step outside for a few moments to see what the sunshine inspires me to do today?

Some of our choices only seem inconsequential, and quite ordinary in the way we make them like we would any other.  We don’t get to see ahead of time what the consequences of our choices will really be further down the path.  We meet loved ones in our lives – friends and partners – when we’re drawn by common choices to be at a particular place at a particular time for sometimes no particular reason.  We discover new jobs and skills we never knew we possessed often because of natural and innocuous choices.

When I wrote Winter Fade, I was particularly conscious of choice and the role it played in the story. Choice becomes personified by the characters Imoen meets throughout the story and the different paths they offer if she were to follow one and not another.  And just as with any of us, sometimes choice becomes a product partly of other forces and not entirely of our free will.

Choice works best as an underlying theme when we’re given the intimacy of really knowing characters and understanding how they feel.  We want to empathize and experience the character’s conflict and desire and doubts or fears for ourselves.  We’re curious whether we would do as they chose – whether we would be either brave enough or foolish enough to follow such a path.  Or whether the choice wouldn’t be entirely ours alone and perhaps that path may have been inevitable in some unforeseen way.

As I mentioned early on, stories don’t need to rely upon a single theme and can often have multiple themes running through them – weaving around one another and strengthening the overall structure.

In Winter Fade, Imoen’s story came about through loneliness and self-imposed isolation that only forestalled choices that new circumstances and dangers force her to make, while confronting herself and discovering new friends and rebuilding a family.  Also – there is a pretty sizable body count 🙂

She ran absent fingers through her hair, exposing and hiding her face as another memory played behind closed eyes. She stood outside the door of her old apartment in Palms. She wondered to herself what had really kept her away all this time. Had it truly been Malcolm’s admonitions? Or had it been some wish of her own to make a break from her past, to find her way again even if it meant treading on uncertain ground? She listened for noises from within, but heard only the low hum of the refrigerator, a sound she had once become so tuned to that it no longer registered.

She tried her old key in the lock, not surprised when it no longer would open this doorway to her past. The lock’s new brass gleamed softly in the dull glow of the lamp outside the door. She knelt before it and retrieved her lockpicks. She began working methodically, and soon heard the final, solid click as the bolt opened. She rose and touched the doorknob slowly, reverently. The metal felt cool beneath her hand, but she imagined a warmth of homecoming after a long night away, a night that seemed to go on forever. She closed her eyes, and then opened the door and stepped inside, shutting the door softly behind her. She opened her eyes once more.

The apartment was bare. A new carpet lay rolled to one side of the living room, waiting to be laid down. Fresh white paint reflected the dim moonlight that entered through the blinds. She walked into her old bedroom, touching the door, the walls. She sank to her hands and knees, her senses overwhelmed by the new and unfamiliar smells as she explored the wood that had lain hidden beneath her old beige carpet, seeking out its memories.

At last, she stood up, her face a solemn cast in the moonlight. There is no going back. But I can always go forward.

A long sigh escaped her lips like a whisper lost in the wind, stirring the hair that hung before her face. 

Firefly Kiss deepens the exploration of choice by also delving into the nature of revenge from different perspectives, and whether the pursuit of whatever we believe to be justice is worth its cost, or is really what we want.  There’s also a lot of action 🙂

Toby sighed. “To a certain degree, I regret mentioning it to you and Ben.”

“You don’t regret not trying to stop me from going?”

He shook his head. “That was your free will, which I will not interfere with. The information I passed was of my free will. But I know you, and prudence would have dictated my silence.”

“Ben and I are glad you did, and there are four kids who are very thankful as well.” She touched his arm. “I don’t blame you for this, Toby. You shouldn’t blame yourself, either.”

“And you would do it again?” He studied her, waiting for her to answer.

She hesitated. “Yes.”

“Your newfound caution is welcome, even when there’s still certainty behind your choice. I have no problem with the latter where the former is engaged.”

“I know I’m not perfect, Toby.”

“Perfection is subjective, anyway. That’s why it’s unattainable.” He looked around the room. “Are you comfortable here?”

She hesitated again. “Yes.”

“You have to confront the past if you want to go on with your future. As a one time student of history, you would know that better than most.” His eyes lingered on the box resting on the floor beside the dresser. “Memories cloud our judgment sometimes, until we place them in proper perspective.”

She followed his gaze. “It feels like letting go.”

“No, it doesn’t.” He turned and looked at her again. “It feels like hurt because you relive it. That’s why you store them away. Memories are gifts, and sometimes they bring pain, but often they bring only what you ask of them. You should ask yourself why that is so.”

She bit at her lip and made herself stop. “Because I can’t choose the doors I want to open.”

“And sometimes you open a door and find your past has been erased, as you did last year when you visited the apartment you had as a human.” He inclined his head. “Were you relieved?”

She avoided his gaze. “I want to be more than a product of my past.”

“So you chose to turn your back on it.”

She lay silent for a while. “I have to move forward, Toby.”

“Sometimes you have to look back to move forward.”

She shook her head. “That’s not true.”

Toby sighed. “The biggest lies are the ones we convince ourselves are true.”

“This is the truth, as I see it.”

He paused, and nodded slowly, his eyes showing compassion. “Fair enough.”

She looked down again, sensing that he had chosen not to press the matter, not because he agreed, but because he had decided it wasn’t the time. 

Snowflake Promise explores the way we try to reconcile ourselves to the choices that brought us where we are, and whether we’re yet settled with the consequences.  Along with that is a strong theme of motherhood – from several different perspectives (plus action).

A light snow was falling. Imoen turned her face upward and stared in wonder at a flurry of snowflakes that swirled as though each had been granted its own life, bright gems chasing one another in and out of the bounds between darkness and light. They moved like restless stars that had spent too long in the heavens, and were now finding their way down to the comfort of earth.

She made a wish on one of them as she followed its slow and ballet-like descent, and wondered what promise such a delicate object of beauty might grant to her and those she loved. She breathed in the cold night air, different than that of her childhood home in Eugene, and even further distant from the moderate clime they had been in only several hours before.

She tugged her jacket unconsciously tighter around herself. Although she wasn’t bothered by the cold, it was a habit formed from the longer span of years she had spent as a human. She turned her head as she continued to stare upward, and experienced momentary vertigo. She had a sense of being surrounded by the neverending rows of buildings arrayed like dark sentinels and embodied with a teeming mass of humanity she couldn’t fathom. All around her was an overwhelming awareness of life that moved in patterns unfamiliar to her, a foreignness that heightened her sense of separation, of a watcher who was being watched.

Her vision blurred. She blinked away the tiny crystals captured by her lashes, and felt the soft tickle of melting snowflakes merge on her skin like fresh teardrops. Her mouth opened slightly, and she tasted a bitter crispness in the air. She blinked again, trying to make sense of this strange vastness she found herself within. She wondered what Jessie and Seth were doing.

She stepped off a curb, still gazing upward. A hand grasped her jacket suddenly, yanking her back just as a taxi roared past only a few feet away, a squealing of tires and buffet of wind the only announcement of its abrupt passage. She turned her head as Thaddeus released her.

He nodded toward the traffic signal, his face impassive. “We’d hate to lose you so soon.”

There was a snicker from one of Gavin’s bodyguards behind her, and she felt her face flush.

Peter raised his eyebrows and favored the bodyguard with an expression of feigned interest. “Got a problem?”

A lot of Kelley Armstrong’s work centers around choice – especially so since she writes character-driven stories.  Just glancing at some of the titles on my bookshelf:  Bitten is about choice (Elena choosing life within the pack and a future with Clay versus trying to integrate into the human world). Personal Demon is about choice (Hope choosing Karl and vice-versa, and no longer being afraid to accept that choice). Haunted is about choice  (Eve accepting that Kristof truly loves her and that more importantly she truly loves him, and that she chooses to share a life with him to the extent she can. There’s another theme of “letting go” that counterpoints her embrace of Kristof. She accepts that she must let go of her desire to oversee Savannah’s life and trust Paige and Lucas to handle it).

The reason choice works so well within stories is that it strengthens the ties between inner conflict of the character and the external conflicts the character must overcome.  Rarely are the two tied together in a direct fashion.  But just like in real life, we often allow the vanquishing of external challenges to help us gather the inner strength to finally confront the choices we’ve been uncertain about for so long.

Sunflowers and Baby Birds

Our backyard is a little different every time spring comes around.

Since our yard is a gathering place for many birds, we often see a variety of plants arise each year to mix it up with the more sedate Saint Augustine grass.

This year, we have a total of thirteen Sunflowers rising up in our yard.  I’m hoping enough will bloom at the same time to make quite a colorful picture.  At the present, several have begun to bud and one turned its bud sideways a couple days ago and opened its bloom today (click for larger picture):

 

 

 

 

 

 

Along with the floral gifts the birds have generously graced our yard with, we also have what looks like another yellow squash plant coming up again (no picture yet, as it’s just a few leaves).

And the doves have already begun building their flimsy nests that barely last long enough for a fledgling to leave – which they sometimes end up doing early when the nest doesn’t quite make it (click for larger picture):

 

 

 

 

 

 

But that’s what windowsills are for.

Because while some pigs build houses of straw or sticks, Practical Pig prefers brick.  And so do baby birds whose nest of sticks and twigs has disintegrated.

Hopefully, Mama Dove will teach her young one caution.  Since the Cooper’s Hawk is ever vigilant and always watching for unwary White Winged Doves (click for larger picture):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Journey or Destination?

One thing I notice in some novels is where an author has invested so much focus on a payoff – the ending climax scene – a lot of what came before feels like an afterthought.

I don’t care how well-written a climax may be.  If what precedes it is 70,000 words or more of filler, it’s almost a mercy to finally reach the ending, and it won’t deliver what it might have.

There’s a sense in some novels that they were too carefully pre-plotted and outlined – which is both a blessing and a curse.  Pre-plotting gives a roadmap for the author to follow.  But sometimes there is too great a reliance upon the map.  The author spends so much time looking down in their lap – following their own map – they forget what they should be communicating to their readers – which is the scenery they’re passing.

Scenery is what a story is about, and the destination is only the culmination of a journey.  The destination can feel like relief, an end to drudgery.  Or it can feel like the perfect next step that makes the journey complete.

There are some writers who make the “getting there” a lot of fun, pure entertainment all the way.

There are also stories padded with filler, and often filled with manufactured reasons to kick the can down the road long enough to meet a word-count.  These latter do neither author nor readers a service.

A key difference is that a “journey” author leaves the reader guessing, “What’s going to happen next.”  While a “destination” author has the reader wondering, “How will it end?”

There’s nothing wrong with a reader wanting to know how a story will end.  But that should lie behind a desire to keep reading and not miss what happens in-between.  Readers have a sense for contrived scenery – it feels as fake as plastic plants that populate cheap office spaces.  When a reader begins skimming and skipping ahead without a sense that anything worthwhile has been missed, there’s a problem.

The most re-readable stories – or movies, for that matter – are the ones whose journey outweighed the ending.  The ending was simply a very natural step in the progression, and often a great payoff nevertheless.  But everything that came before made it worthwhile.

In John Irving’s The World According to Garp, the title character’s latest work, born from pain in his own personal life, is given to the editor’s cleaning woman, Jillsy Sloper, to read.  She returned with it, bedraggled and exhausted, having finished the book in a sitting:

    “I shouldn’t have given it to you, Jillsy,” John Wolf said. “I should have remembered that first chapter.”
    “First chapter ain’t so bad,” Jillsy said. “That first chapter ain’t nothin’. It’s that nineteenth chapter that got me,” Jillsy said. “Lawd, Lawd!” she crowed.
    “You read nineteen chapters?” John Wolf asked.
    “You didn’t give me no more than nineteen chapters,” Jillsy said. “Jesus Lawd, is there another chapter? Do it keep goin’ on?”
    “No, no,” John Wolf said. “That’s the end of it. That’s all there is.”
    “If you hated it, why’d you read it, Jillsy?” John Wolf asked her.
    “Same reason I read anythin’ for,” Jillsy said. “To find out what happens.”
    John Wolf stared at her.
    “Most books you know nothin’s gonna happen,” Jillsy said. “Lawd, you know that. Other books,” she said, “you know just what’s gonna happen, so you don’t have to read them, either. But this book,” Jillsy said, “this book’s so sick you know somethin’s gonna happen, but you can’t imagine what. You got to be sick yourself to imagine what happens in this book,” Jillsy said.
    “So you read it to find out?” John Wolf said.
    “There surely ain’t no other reason to read a book, is there?” Jillsy Sloper said.
    “You want a copy?” John Wolf asked.
    “If it’s no trouble,” Jillsy said.
    “Now that you know what happens,” John Wolf said, “what would you want to read it again for?”
    “Well,” Jillsy said. She looked confused; John Wolf had never seen Jillsy Sloper look confused before–only sleepy. “Well, I might lend it,” she said. “There might be someone I know who needs to be reminded what men in this world is like,” she said.
    “Would you ever read it again yourself?” John Wolf asked.
    “Well,” Jillsy said. “Not all of it, I imagine. At least not all at once, or not right away.” Again, she looked confused. “Well,” she said, sheepishly, “I guess I mean there’s parts of it I wouldn’t mind readin’ again.”
    “Why?” John Wolf asked.
    “Lawd,” Jillsy said, tiredly, as if she were finally impatient with him. “It feels so true,” she crooned, making the word true cry like a loon over a lake at night.
“It feels so true,” John Wolf repeated.
“Lawd, don’t you know it is?” Jillsy asked him. “If you don’t know when a book’s true,” Jillsy sang to him, “we really ought to trade jobs.”

 

A good journey isn’t purely linear – although there is always a sense along the way that we’re being taken toward a particular destination.  Stephen King’s The Stand is almost 500,000 words and never predictable from one chapter to the next – but there is always a feeling that the characters we’ve encountered and are following are going to meet one another somewhere down the road – and it isn’t going to be pretty when it happens.  Richard Bach’s Illusions is about one-tenth the size of King’s opus, and still makes each chapter a new revelation.  Word-count should never be a concern with making a story interesting.

I feel like some authors fear that with the demands of word-count and concerns with pacing, their stories can’t deviate too far left or right.  But eyes-forward gives the reader only a view of the road ahead – not terribly interesting or encouraging when we know we’re 70 miles (or 70,000 words) from our destination.  A writer needs to put their story into the eyes and experiences of a passenger rather than a driver, and allow the reader to see what is happening around them while making it interesting enough to want to go on.  Word-count is never an excuse for thin characters and contrived plotting.

How to make things interesting along the way is up to the author.  The most common ways are to introduce new characters and bring out more elements of the plot – including revelatory moments, mini-crises, and plot twists.  The problem comes in because “destination” authors are still thinking of road maps and directions.  Characters who are introduced may then have no more depth or dimension than a road sign.  Turn them sideways and they almost disappear.  Plot elements and twists become trite, intended only to stretch out a journey – along with a reader’s patience.

One common complaint about some novels is a “whiny” main character.  Imagine being trapped in a car for almost a hundred miles with someone whiny.  That’s about how fun it can be for a reader trapped in a story with such a character.  Whiny isn’t interesting, and what a reader expects from a story is that the characters – and this includes secondary characters – be interesting.  We don’t have to even like characters to want to journey along with them.  Stephen King has spent most of his career peopling his stories with characters readers often don’t like, but who we still find interesting enough to follow.

One of the signs that a book delivers on its promise is when readers look back and remember favorite scenes, captured like treasured snapshots of their journey.  It’s easier to accomplish that when an author isn’t worrying as much only about their destination and can make each chapter interesting – rather than using them as filler or transition points.  I really feel that each chapter of a book should be capable of standing on its own, even when it’s woven into the overall structure of the story.  Many of my favorite books are the ones I can pick up and flip forward to chapters and enjoy them as much as any other.

There was a blogger who used to do wrap-ups of the show Lost and would skip over the “transition” points in many episodes by writing, Walking through the Jungle. Walking through the Jungle. Walking through the Jungle.  Transition chapters and scenes can be made interesting.  But sometimes a reader has the sense the only reason they were written was to take a reader from here to over there.

Good chapters and good stories make a reader forget they’re being taken someplace.  A reader ought to be too busy enjoying the scenery, looking around, and curiously excited about what comes next than to worry so much about getting to the ending.

Authors need to think like a reader and give their readers that kind of experience.

Elements of a Novel

A novel is a tapestry of elements woven together in a way that feels right to the reader.

There is plenty of variation to play with, and every writer brings a different balance to the elements that make up their story.  The individual pieces or the sum of the parts will resonate or strike discordant notes with any number of readers.  That’s simply a given.  No two people ever respond in the same way to anything we see, read, or otherwise experience.  All an author can do is to try to  weave these elements in as effective a way as they can.

Characters

Readers (and even writers) don’t need to like a character to enjoy them.  But the characters need to feel real and compelling enough that we want to know what they’ll do and what will happen with them.  Stephen King said this about Carrie:  I never got to like Carrie White and I never trusted Sue Snell’s motives in sending her boyfriend to the prom with her, but I did have something there.

A writer has to understand their characters – whether they like them or not – in order to breathe them into life for a reader.  This holds true with secondary characters – who too often get shortchanged or overlooked in many stories.  A thinly-developed secondary character is like a Card-Guard from Alice in Wonderland.  Every time they turn sideways they disappear.  They’re all too often treated as filler, and excuses are sometimes that modern novel word-limits make character development more difficult.  But a good storyteller can make a secondary character come sharply to life with only a few brushstrokes.

Mood

Every story has a mood that defines it.  You feel this when you read a story.  And if you’re a writer, you should be feeling it when you’re writing it, to better communicate it to your readers.  A story isn’t just words connected to plot and characters.  A story is something more – it’s an idea that connects a writer’s imagination to that of a reader.  There’s a magic about it when it’s done well.  The mood will shape all the other elements – the pacing, character motivations, descriptive prose, everything.  Horror novels are obviously dependent upon mood, but so are romances, and thrillers, and westerns, and sci-fi and every other genre.  Great stories make you feel and you can identify that feeling just by thinking about the book.  No matter what anyone says about Twilight (for the record, I haven’t read the books, but saw the movies and enjoyed them, and I have no problem with whether the writing is “good” or not, because the stories were successful for what they were supposed to be) – fans of the series felt the stories.

External and Internal Struggles / Challenges

I believe the best stories have both external and internal struggles and challenges.  They don’t need to be in equal balance, and their focus can depend as much on genre as the story itself.  Thrillers can often get away with almost entirely a focus on external (although many thrillers also incorporate strong internal elements).

I believe it’s important to develop stories where the character at the end of the story is not unchanged from the one who began it.  Readers are taking a journey along with the characters, and they want to feel changed by the experience just as much as the characters are changed.  Sometimes this kind of transformation is mistaken for external change – in urban fantasy/paranormal especially, sometimes there is too much focus on tacking on more and more powers to a character to demonstrate the way they have changed.  Writers and readers should be able to easily answer the question, “was the character different by the end” with a resounding “Yes!” rather than, “Sort of.”

External crises are there so the characters (and by extension the readers) can feel changed by what happens and in the aftermath.  There should be a maturation and an affect whenever possible – and not done in a cheap way but rather in a believable manner.  The end result is not always that a character has to be “better” but only that they have to be changed.  Internal and external can very easily be woven together to make a stronger storyline.  Kelley Armstrong always does this.  So does Patricia Briggs.  Anne Rice did this with many of her Vampire Chronicles books.  Richard Bach did it with Illusions.  Stephen King has done it numerous times with many of his books.  It strengthens a story and makes a reader connect just that much more.

Dialogue

Dialogue can be tough, and more so because there really isn’t a single way to portray it.  As well, what people consider to be “good” dialogue changes over time.  You’ll find different dialogue styles across genres – thrillers, westerns, romances, literary fiction, etc.  And even within genres, writers develop distinct trademarks to the way they develop and portray dialogue.

What most successful dialogue shares is a terse compactness that distills the idea of what is being said into a way that translates for reading.  When we speak aloud with someone, much of what is said isn’t really needed.  In written dialogue, we want to strip away the unnecessary parts and communicate the ideas that really matter, and we want to do it in a way that zips the story along.  The latter is why pretty much everyone agrees that dialogue tags are usually either best left out altogether whenever possible, or at least restricted to “said” or “asked” because readers will mentally skip over these familiar tags.  When a writer decides to demonstrate their vocabulary with creative tags other than these two main ones, a reader may pause for a moment before continuing, in the way that records used to skip (back when people used record players).  There’s nothing wrong with an occasional “whispered” or “yelled” (although the latter can be better communicated with simply the exclamation point and “yelled” would only be needed if attribution of who said what was required), but it should be occasional.

Ditto for using adverbial qualifiers to dialogue tags.  Nothing wrong with a very occasional “she said softly,” but not every single piece of dialogue requires this.  If the dialogue works in the way it should, a reader should be hearing what’s being spoken as well as already feeling how it’s being said, just from the way the scene is unfolding.

Pacing

Pacing can be difficult to define because it can end up being a little subjective.  It’s possible to read a page-turner doorstop of a novel or an interminable 85,000-word novel with short sentences but not enough sense of movement.  Some of this depends upon any given reader, but a lot still depends on the writer.  A writer has to consider what really does or does not need to appear in a work, and how to keep a reader turning pages.

Bad pacing usually is synonymous with boredom.  When a reader begins skipping passages, the pacing is the problem.  Redundant explanations, long-winded dialogue in which more than is necessary is communicated, and too much description where nothing really happens – all of these things contribute to pacing issues.

Still…it’s not enough just to “make something happen.”  Readers need to actually care that something is happening.  Set-pieces that feel tossed in just to move a story along can be transparent because a reader intuits that they serve no purpose.  A writer should try to make everything interesting.  Make the characters interesting.  Make the things they say to one another interesting.  Make the inner turmoils of the main character interesting.  Trivial doesn’t work so well, and neither do predictable pretend-crisis points that feel overly manufactured.

Get The Details Right

If you’re writing in sci-fi, you probably have a lot of leeway in this. If you’re writing any story grounded in the world we live in (or in history as it really happened), you should make every attempt to get the details right.  Because bad details that a reader recognizes are wrong have a very jarring effect and can undermine the believability of the world you’re trying to convince readers to share.

If a writer is going to describe a real location, they should either visit or at least do enough research to be able to convince someone who actually lives there.  Zipping from one end of Los Angeles to the other in 15 minutes, or Manhattan, or Seattle or any other major city is a clumsy mistake.  Getting the weather wrong is another.  Putting mountains and hills and rivers and other geographical features where they don’t exist is another.  All that’s needed are some nuances that make a setting come alive just enough.  That really isn’t hard to do – as long as the nuances are right.

A writer could choose to make things generic in order to avoid such problems.  In some circumstances, this can be a great solution.  But in the wrong hands, it can prevent the reader from being drawn into a story where the settings are bland.  And in any event, a setting should feel real to a reader whether or not it’s placed in a real locale or a fictional one.  Stephen King has almost always made his locale a character unto itself.  The town in Salem’s Lot was a character.  So was the town of Derry in It.  Both of these are fictional places, but he based them upon settings he was familiar with.

There’s less wrong with getting obscure details incorrect.  Patricia Briggs freely used silver bullets in her early Mercy Thompson books, until she and her husband decided to investigate how or whether they would actually work.  After considerable experimentation (which I’d highly recommend anyone read if they’re curious), they came up with solutions which she incorporated into the fifth book, Silver Borne.  Truthfully, few people would even know the difficulties any more than they did when the Lone Ranger featured his silver bullets.  Still, it’s nice to explore that kind of thing.

As well, movies and television regularly abuse the realities of technology – besides the many “hacking scenes” there’s also the magic involved in making pixels multiply in sudden new detail when “zoom and enhance” are utilized.  But most people aren’t aware of these kinds of things (ditto for Hollywood gun myths) so it’s quite possible to get some obscure details incorrect or at least fudge them with semi-plausible explanations.  Stephen king has regularly changed revolvers to automatics and so on.  And a little fantasy injected into a basis of current technology is a great way to make a story entertaining.  A good example is the entire premise of Jurassic Park in which Crichton did extensive research into the science but needed a way to extract dino-DNA, settling upon blood found in mosquitoes frozen in amber – despite the fact that this is probably not possible currently.

Writers have to choose what details matter to get right, and which not to worry so much about.  The choice depends upon what percentage of readers are likely to be irked, so the burden rises with the wideness of familiarity among readers with whatever details are being used.

Believability

This ties in with several other elements – Characters, Dialogue, and Getting Details Right, especially.  A reader has to be able to suspend disbelief and fall into the story.  Characters have to feel real, their struggles identified with, the things they say to one another should be mirrored in the reader’s mind, and settings should come alive.  Fail enough times, and a reader loses their belief.  It isn’t easy to earn it back.

Suspense / Intrigue

This goes along with other elements as well – particularly Pacing, Characters, and External/Internal Struggles and Challenges.  A reader should care about what is happening enough to keep turning pages.  It’s important to emphasize that suspense and intrigue are about the ongoing story and not about any special surprise planned to wrap everything all up.

A story does not even require a satisfying climax in order to be enjoyable.  The best stories are the ones where they’re still enjoyable even when the climax is already known – these are the books we re-read or the movies we see more than once.  Stephen King’s The Stand has a sort of anti-climatic climax but the development and build-up have always made this book one of the favorites among his fans.  M. Night Shyamalan probably hit the best notes with The Sixth Sense – because the story itself was the best part rather than just the twist ending.

Resolutions That Feel Right

I’ve read books where the whole of the book was enjoyable but the story fell flat at the end.  Often, this is because the characters didn’t seem to change in the ways that the storyline had been promising all along.  Happy or sad endings don’t matter – as long as the ending feels right.  When an ending is hackneyed, readers will feel cheated and their forgiveness will only depend upon how strong the rest of the story had been.

Writers tread a very careful line with reader expectations.  Readers have come along on a journey and have certain things they believe will make the ending worthwhile.  Writers feel a need to both surprise and match expectations, and sometimes this results in either being a little too creative in the surprises.  The results can either fall flat, or come so far out of left field as to make a reader shake their head, or completely dismay a reader by turning the story in a whiplash move from the direction in which things had been going.  A writer (and the reader) should be able to look at a resolution and believe that “this made sense, based on what had come before.”

Readers accept some level of coincidence.  There’s even an acceptance of MacGyver solution-finding if it’s plausible enough and wasn’t just hacked into a plot at the last minute. The problem is that some authors mistake the concept of Chekhov’s Gun (effective foreshadowing and use of impending plot elements) with the appropriateness of introducing unlikely elements early in a story so they can be miraculously “used” to save the day at the end.  It’s the literary equivalent of having a character carry around a screwdriver for next to no reason simply because the author plans to have the character locked into a room at the end, and only their handy screwdriver lets them remove the screws from the hinges and open the door.  This is just lazy plotting, and it happens with some frequency.

It doesn’t mean main characters cannot die, or bad things happen.  It just has to make sense.

No Deus Ex Machina or Author Interventions

Sometimes an author writes their story into such a hole that only a deus ex machina (an unlikely event, literally a “god from the machine” or godly intervention) can save the day and extract the character(s).

It’s even worse when the characters’ own actions put them in such a predicament, and a typical reader believes those actions were dumb and a very transparent attempt from the author just to put the characters in danger.  Having characters choose to split up (when they’re already facing danger) or choose not to tell someone else where they’re going are very often used in plotlines.  Sometimes, these can work, but they better have pretty logical explanations in order for this to happen.  Readers don’t enjoy reading about dumb characters, and especially not about smart characters who suddenly do dumb things just to make a crisis happen.

Deus Ex Machina and Author Interventions jar a reader out of a story.  They are transparent attempts by a clumsy writer to recover the pieces of a story that they’ve allowed to get away from them.  The reader can actually see the writer’s hands dipping into the story in front of their eyes – moving characters around and lifting them up out of danger.

It isn’t a pretty sight.

Bad plotting and frankly even over-plotting can lead to these kinds of situations.  Sometimes there’s too much reliance upon where a story is supposed to be going, so a writer feels the need to continually nudge and push characters toward that destination – “Here’s where I want you to go.  There’s a good girl.”  Pretend characters are really living and breathing people with motivations of their own, and just let them move of their own free will.  If you’ve imagined them in the way they belong, they’ll go where they need to without any intervention.  And where they need to go may not even be where the writer thinks they need to go.  There’s a thought.

Some writers are a little too much like the fabled helicopter-parents, controlling too many aspects of their children’s lives and shielding or extracting them from any hint of danger.  No reader wants to have a helicopter-parent-author hovering around and dipping into the story with a whir of rotor-blades to save their precious characters.

So avoid forcing characters into situations in a clumsy and transparent way, when the only plan is to extract them in an equally clumsy and transparent way.  You want readers to believe, and they’ll believe more when they don’t see the author getting between them and the story.

CreateSpace Document Settings

Since I’ve already done guides for formatting for the Kindle and for the Nook, I thought I’d address formatting for CreateSpace as well.

CreateSpace can seem a little confusing even compared to eBook formatting requirements.

Before looking at my own guide, I’d invite people to read over various guides and suggestions on CreateSpace’s own site.  Here are some very helpful ones:

While all of this may seem like a lot, and appear rather confusing – particularly with all the PDF settings – there seems to be some flexibility because people certainly approach it from many different angles and somehow get their documents uploaded even without being technical experts.  So no reason to feel daunted.

The CreateSpace interior templates (found on this page – scroll down) are one way to start.  Some people like them.  Others simply format their own Word document as indicated by CreateSpace guidelines.

The templates are not perfect.  There are some residual and inconsistent fonts in them (as of this writing) that need to be replaced to whatever you want your font to be.

Obviously, anyone’s book will be customized according to what they want for their front matter (the pages before the book begins, such as Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication, Table of Contents, Acknowledgements, Foreword/Introduction, etc.).

I prefer utilizing one of CreateSpace’s templates and simply making changes to fit my needs.  I don’t find it too hard to do that, but anyone can easily format a document from scratch to match the templates.  I’ll address a few things here before getting into formatting.

SECTIONS

What you’ll notice when you download one of CreateSpace’s templates is the use of Sections – where individual pages of Front Matter each have their own Section while the actual text of the novel all resides in another unified section.  The purpose for this is to allow formatting distinct to the needs of each page of Front Matter, as well as to contain page numbering and formatting for the actual text in one clearly defined section.

PAGE BREAKS and SECTION BREAKS

CreateSpace templates rely on Sections to define each page of Front Matter and utilize Page Breaks after each Chapter.

PAGE NUMBERING

Normally, Front Matter is either not numbered at all, or lowercase Roman Numerals are sometimes utilized.  I prefer not to number Front Matter at all.  Actual numerical page numbers begin with the text itself.  So even though your actual text begins after many pages of front matter, where your text begins will be numbered as “Page 1.”

FONTS

People use a variety of fonts.  Some fonts are designed to look great for the text.  Others are designed to excel as Chapter Titles, and others for Book Titles.  Some fonts do not scale down or up very well.  So even if a font looks great for a Book Title, it may not scale down well to use for Chapter Titles or even smaller for Text.  And vice-versa.

I like to use Georgia for Chapter Titles as well as for page numbering in the footers and for author/title in the headers.  It’s a clear and clean font that looks nicely defined.  For text, I really like Cambria, particularly in 11-point size.  Cambria is one of the best fonts for handling the transition between plain/regular and italics.  If your text utilizes any italics, you should plan to experiment and print pages using different fonts and point-sizes to determine which font best suits your needs.  Some fonts handle italics better than others.  I feel Cambria is one of the best that’s fairly widely used.

Now let’s look at the nitty-gritty of Formatting.

Assuming the 6″x9″ Template is being utilized, the entire document should reflect this Page Setup:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sections

  • Section 1 – Title Page
  • Section 2 – Copyright
  • Section 3 – Dedication
  • Section 4 – Blank
  • Section 5 – Table of Contents
  • Section 6 – Blank
  • Section 7 – Acknowledgements
  • Section 8 – Blank
  • Section 9 – Text of the Book (including About The Author)
  • The first 8 sections’ Headers will use Page Setup with CENTERED Vertical Alignment in Page Layout
  • Section 9’s Header will use Page Setup with TOP Vertical Alignment in Page Layout
* * * Note * * * The reason “Blank” pages are inserted is so certain pages will be on the right-hand side of a book when you read it.  When you open a book, the “Title Page” is on the right, flip it and you see the “Copyright Page” on the left, “Dedication” on the right, then often a “Blank” page on the left and “Table of Contents” on the right,” and a “Blank” page on the left with Chapter 1 beginning on the right.

For Vertical Alignment for the sections as noted above:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Page Numbering (Footer) and Author Name and Title (Header)

  • Begin numbering as 1 on first page of Chapter 1
  • Begin Author Name in Header on Page 2 (Left side)
  • Begin Title in Header on Page 3 (Right side)
See below for Microsoft Word 2010 Header and Footer “Same as Previous” settings to ensure page numbering in the Footer and Author/Title in the Header work as they should:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fonts

  • Title – MoolBoran 70
  • Author Name – MoolBoran 34
  • Copyright Page – Cambria 11
  • Dedication – Cambria 11 Italics
  • Table of Contents – Georgia 11
  • Acknowledgements – Cambria 11
  • Book – Cambria 11
  • HEADERS – Georgia 14 ALL-CAPS
  • Page Numbers (Footer) – Georgia 10
  • Author and Title (Header) – Georgia 9

Section and Page Breaks

  • Section Breaks after each Section
  • Page Breaks only at the end of each Chapter

Notes

  • Update ISBN and Date on Copyright Page
  • Make sure all Chapters are Full Justified

Book Paragraph Format (after story begins)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ADDITIONAL NOTES

The CreateSpace templates can get a little finicky with Styles because they set these templates up with custom styles, and Microsoft Word loves to re-style things when you hit a backspace or delete or enter key.  What will often happen is that you may suddenly encounter a change to a Font or Line Spacing.  This is just one of the quirks that make Microsoft Word so helpful/endearing/supply your own term while gritting teeth.

Headers and Footers can be quirky to work with in various versions of Microsoft Word.  There are a number of settings that can be used and Word’s Header and Footer functions tends to be one of the more idiosyncratic elements.

The First Line Indent and Line Spacing I illustrated above in Book Paragraph Format (after story begins) are the ones I utilize with Cambria 11-point font.  If you use a different Font or Point-Size, you should experiment with your own First Line Indent and Line Spacing.  Some people prefer to specify a Line Spacing of “Multiple 1.15” or similar, for example.

Creating the PDF Document

I’m only going to address using Adobe X – which is what I use.  If you’re utilizing another PDF creator, please refer to some of the links I referenced at the beginning of this guide.

Step 1 – Set up CreateSpace PreFlight

As mentioned earlier in this guide, CreateSpace PreFlight checks to ensure that a PDF will match CreateSpace’s requirements.  (This part of the guide utilizes help from the CreateSpace forums):

  1. Download CreateSpace PreFlight and unzip the files
  2. Open Adobe X (which is what I’m using for this guide)
  3. Click on “Tools” on the right hand menu
  4. If you don’t see “Print Production” as an option
  5. Click on the “Show or hide panels” in the top right hand side of the panel
  6. Check “Print Production” and the panel should now show up under “Tools”
  7. Click on “Print Production” and you will see  “Preflight”
  8. Click on “Preflight” and nothing will look like what you need.
  9. Click on the “Options” menu and you will see “Import Preflight Profile and then you are home free
  10. Point it to the “kdf” file and you are off and running

See screenshot below for illustration:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Step 2 – Set up a CreateSpace Default PDF Profile and Convert Your File

For Adobe Acrobat Version 9.0 and Above:

1.    Open your document
2.    Go to “File,” and then “Print”
3.    Choose “Adobe PDF” as the printer in the drop-down menu
4.    Click “Properties”
5.    Go to the “Default Settings” drop-down menu, and click “Edit”
6.    Go to the General tab
7.    Choose “Acrobat 5.0” under “Compatibility”
8.    Choose “Off,” under “Object Level Compression”
9.    Choose “Off,” under “Auto-Rotate Pages”
10.    Go to the Images tab
11.    Change the resolution of Color Images to Bicubic Downsample to “305” pixels per inch for images above “320” pixels per inch, also change the compression to “JPEG” and image quality to “Maximum”
12.    Change the resolution of Grayscale Images to Bicubic Downsample “305” pixels per inch for images above “320” pixels per inch, also change the compression to “JPEG” and Image quality to “Maximum”
13.    Go to the Fonts tab
14.    Deselect the “Subset embedded fonts” option
15.    Select all of the fonts under “Font Source,” and add them to “Always Embed”
16.    Go to the Color tab
17.    Select “Leave Color Unchanged,” under Color Management Policies”
18.    Click “Save As,” name the job option “CreateSpace,” and click “Save”
19.    Click “OK” and ensure “Adobe PDF Security” is set to “None”
20.    Select the appropriate page size for your document or create a new size if needed
21.    Deselect “Rely on system fonts only; do not use document fonts,” then click “OK”
22.    Click “OK,” you will be prompted to name and save your file

* * * Note * * * Once you have set up your CreateSpace Default PDF Profile you should be able to convert future documents by only doing the following steps:

1)      Open Word Document
2)      Go to “Print” page (CTRL-P)
3)      Change Printer to Adobe PDF
4)      Click on “Printer Properties”
5)      Change “Default Settings” dropdown to “CreateSpace”
6)      Change “Adobe PDF Page Size” to 6×9
7)      Un-check the box for “Rely on system fonts only; do not use document fonts”
8)      Click “OK”
9)      Click on the “Print” button, select location and file name, and convert to PDF

 

Step 3 – Run CreateSpace PreFlight on your PDF File

1)  Open the PDF you have just created

2)  Click on Tools (upper-right) and select “Preflight” underneath “Print Production”

3)  Make sure “CreateSpace PrePress” is selected and click on “Analyze”

4)  The only errors should be relating to Font embedding (yellow warnings only)

* * * Note * * * Font embedding yellow warnings are simply a notification that your font changed at various points in your document.  Every time a font shifts in size or style, it generates one of these warnings.  Don’t worry about Font embedding yellow warnings.  For any other warnings, you may wish to contact CreateSpace or post on the CreateSpace forums to try to resolve.

Additional – General Text Formatting

You want your book to look good.  Prior to creating the PDF, I would strongly encourage anyone to review their Word document so that what they see really will be what they get, and they will be happy with the result.

Things to consider are:

  • Justification inserts too much space so a line looks less than stellar.  Solution – either utilize hyphens to break up a word, or re-word that line slightly.
  • Scene breaks that occur at the end of a page.  Normally, an extra paragraph return (blank line) indicates a scene break.  When this happens between pages, and particularly when one scene ends with dialogue and the next scene begins with new dialogue, it can temporarily confuse a reader.  Solution – insert a scene break indicator of your choice where blank space allows – either at the end of that page or the beginning of the next page, to cue a reader a scene break occurred.  I prefer using four spaced hyphens centered to indicate such a scene break.
  • Punctuation problems.

Here are some punctuation issues that I also discussed in the Kindle Formatting Guide:

1)  Make sticky Em-Dashes.  Em-Dashes need to be made “sticky” so they remain associated with the word preceding them (they cannot easily be made “sticky” to both words before and after).  The reason you’re doing this is again – Kindle allows users to make all kinds of text customizations so you have no control where a line will wrap to the next line.  Your text will look more professional by keeping your em-dashes sticky.  And even if they were sticky when you originally wrote them, they lost that when you copied the document into Notepad and then into a new Word document.  Fortunately, this can be done automatically using Edit-Replace and is fast.  You probably have two possibilities – either two dashes () or an existing em-dash () that you will replace with ^+ which can also be found under Special in Edit-Replace (click image for full-size):

 

 

 

 

 

2)  Make sticky Hyphens.  Same as with em-Dashes, although sticky hyphens stick to both the word before and the word after.  If you don’t make hyphens sticky, it’s possible a Kindle user may see a line that has an example of two connected words breaking with the hyphen at the beginning of the next line.  Do an Edit-Replace and search for hyphens (-) and replace with ^~   

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note:  If you ever need to manually insert sticky hyphens, you can type this wherever one needs to occur:  CTRL-SHIFT-Dash (don’t type the word “Dash” but use the hyphen symbol)

3)  Make sticky non-breaking Ellipses.  Ellipses are where you have those three little dots…   There are all kinds of rules about ellipses as far as dot sizing or spacing (some style manuals prefer them to be a different sized dot than a following period, to distinguish them – because no way we could recognize a sentence that just ended…. ).  This is Kindle, so keep it simple.  If you do not make Ellipses Sticky and Non-Breaking, you will have instances where a user will see the three dots broken up onto separate lines when they come at the end of a line, or following punctuation (end-quote, question mark, or period) will end up on its own line.

You can Edit-Replace like before, but care must be taken because there are four variations.  So do not do a “Replace All.”  Also, depending on how your ellipses already appear in the document, you will probably first have to locate one and put it in the “Find what” field of the Edit-Replace box.  This is because your Word template may originally have auto-corrected any instances of three dots into an ellipsis which technically is a single object (whereas three dots are three different objects).  So searching for three dots (…) might not find anything in this Kindle document.  So scroll through it to where you know you have an ellipsis, and copy it so you can put it in the “Find what” field of the Edit-Replace box.

Variations:

  • Ellipsis before end-quote (space-dot-space-dot-space-dot)  ^s.^s.^s.
  • Ellipsis between words (add another space ^s after last dot)  ^s.^s.^s.^s
  • Ellipsis before Question mark (add another space ^s after last dot) ^s.^s.^s.^s
  • Ellipsis at end of plain sentence (add another space-dot ^s. to end sentence)  ^s.^s.^s.^s.

Examples:

  • “I was thinking . . .”
  • “I thought . . . you weren’t going to leave.”
  • “So what exactly were you . . . ?”
  • The sky was gray, and the snow began to fall . . . .
The last example is where style guides would prefer a definitive period rather than an equal-sized dot.
What you will do is an Edit-Replace search for each of these instances, so you will have to go to each one and decide whether to replace, depending on which of the four situations you encounter.  Note that both Ellipsis Between Word and Ellipsis Before Question Mark use the same solution of ^s.^s.^s.^s
So you will technically have three possible solutions (click image for full-size):

 

 

 

 

 

Note:  You can create these manually by variations of the following:

CTRL-SHIFT-SPACE Period CTRL-SHIFT-SPACE Period CTRL-SHIFT-SPACE Period

4)  Get rid of any instances of two spaces between sentences.  Books only have one space between sentences, even though many of us were taught to use two spaces between sentences.  Easy to do:  Edit-Replace and search for however many spaces you think might have happened.  If you feel you might have even done triple-spaces, start with those and replace with a single space before doing an Edit-Replace for double spaces.

5)  Get rid of spaces that happen at the end of paragraphs.  Sometimes you may have decided to break a longer paragraph into two smaller ones and there is a hanging space at the end of the first one.  This can potentially cause an extra blank line between paragraphs if a user has configured their Kindle text such that the space makes a line a little too long.

There are four variations and you can automatically replace them with Edit-Replace.  They’re easy to find because it will involve punctuation, a space, and a hard return:

Old New
. ^p .^p
? ^p ?^p
! ^p !^p
” ^p ”^p

6)  Get rid of spaces that happen at the beginning of paragraphs.  Same happenstance as above but two easy variations of Edit-Replace.

Don’t use the word SPACE or NOSPACE.  Those are to show what is or isn’t there for this example.  The second variant with quotes probably won’t be needed, but just in case:

Old New
^pSPACE ^pNOSPACE
^pSPACE ^pNOSPACE

7)  Fix any instances where Word decided to use an end-quote rather than a begin-quote at the start of a paragraph:

Old New
^p” ^p“
. ” . “

8 )  Fix any instances of straight-quotes with curly-quotes.  Per this link:

Microsoft Word automatically changes straight quotation marks ( ‘ or ” ) to curly (smart or typographer’s) quotes ( Smart single quotation marks or Smart double quotation marks ) as you type.

To turn this feature on or off:

  1. On the Tools menu, click AutoCorrect Options, and then click the AutoFormat As You Type tab.
  2. Under Replace as you type, select or clear the “Straight quotes” with “smart quotes” check box.

 Note   You can find and replace all instances of single or double curly quotes with straight quotes in your document. To do this, clear the “Straight quotes” with “smart quotes” check box on the AutoFormat As You Type tab. On the Edit menu, click Replace. In both the Find what and Replace with boxes, type or , and then click Find Next or Replace All.

To replace all straight quotes with curly quotes, select the “Straight quotes” with “smart quotes” check box, and repeat the find and replace procedure.

Oregon

Last year my wife and I spent a week in Oregon, staying in both Portland and Eugene, and making trips through the Columbia River Gorge, to Cannon Beach/Haystack Rock, and a few other places.

I think I live in the wrong state.

I’m not a fan of heat.  Where I live, on the Gulf Coast in Texas, there are essentially two seasons:  Summer…and not-Summer

Summer lasts the majority of the year.  I was curious recently and saw that we get seven months (April through October) where the average daily high is 79 degrees Fahrenheit and above.  While 80-degree weather may not sound so bad, several of those months have 90 and 100+ degree daytime temps.

There’s also the humidity.

High temperatures and high humidity are probably not bad in a sauna.  But who really wants to live in a sauna?  Nighttime temperatures offer little respite – June through September have temperatures “cool down” to a simmering mid to high-70s at night.  Perfect for that steaming sweaty walk to end a sweltering day!

We get a typical average of about 5 inches of rainfall every month, year-round.  Other places have a wet season and a dry season.  The Willamette Valley in Oregon has wet winters and relatively dry and mild summers.

I’ve had people sagely advise me to “spend some time in the winter in Portland or Eugene” apparently in the belief that I’m a lizard who likes basking in hot weather and would be turned off by *gasp* winter.  I’ve spent winter in Ohio in sub-zero, I’ve camped in the snow before, and I’ve spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ old (uninsulated) house where it’s been in the teens or twenties inside the house before you crank up a propane heater to temporarily warm a room to maybe 50 degrees when you get up in the morning.  So when I tell people that cold weather doesn’t bother me so much, I really do mean that.  I mean, I wouldn’t be thrilled spending winters in Minneapolis, or Verkhoyansk, Siberia either.  But the Willamette Valley’s winters – if anyone were to believe the extensive and widely available climate and temperature and rainfall and snow data – doesn’t match an Ohio winter with its snow that can fall between October and April.

I found Oregon to be breathtakingly beautiful.  We have few mountains in Texas – and they’re quite far away, tucked in the far western part of the state.  Otherwise, some rolling hills in central Texas.

I liked the mountains, the variety of landscapes we passed through in our 800 miles or so of driving, and we were amazed at the sheer volume and variety of flowers.  It’s nice to be able to drive a couple hours and be in a different landscape and climate.  In Texas, it can take an hour or more just to cross any of the four large metropolitan areas (Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio).  Houston especially has never-ending environs that can stretch for endless distances.  According to ever-helpful Wikipedia:

According to the United States Census Bureau, the Houston–Sugar Land–Baytown metropolitan area has a total area of 10,062 square miles (26,060 km²), 8,929 sq mi (23,130 km2). is land area, while 1,133 sq mi (2,930 km2). is water area.; slightly smaller than Massachusetts and slightly larger than New Jersey.

So it’s sort of nice to be able to drive out of the center of a city like Portland and actually get somewhere in a reasonable amount of time (without having to leave at 4AM on a weekend).  I also found Oregon traffic to be exceedingly nice.  So thanks, Oregon drivers!

Anyway, here is a sampling of pictures we took:

 

Banana Bread and Sweet Cornbread

 

For a change, how about a couple of nice, easy-to-make recipes?

Banana Bread is very simple to make.  This makes a very nice, moist banana bread – not that dry stuff we sometimes see.  It also freezes very well, either whole or you can slice it and wrap the slices in waxed paper before wrapping them in plastic.

Banana Bread

3-4 Ripe Bananas (Mashed)

1/4 Cup Butter or Margarine (1/2 Stick) – Softened and cut into pieces

Cinnamon, Allspice, Nutmeg

1 Cup Sugar

1/4 to 1/3 Cup Molasses

2 Cups Flour

1 Tsp Baking Soda

3/4 Cup Chopped Walnuts or Pecans (or skip the Nuts if you wish)

1)            Preheat Oven to 350 Degrees

2)            Mash bananas with Butter (or Margarine), Spices, and Sugar

3)            Stir in Flour, Baking Soda, and Nuts

4)            Bake in Loaf Pan for 55-65 Minutes until top has a nice crust

—-

For those who enjoy Cornbread but like a sweet, moist version, here’s one that’s simple to make:

Sweet Cornbread

1 and 1/3 Sticks Butter (Softened)

1 Cup Sugar

3 Eggs

1 and 2/3 Cup Milk

2 Cups Flour

1 Cup Cornmeal

4 Teaspoons Baking Powder

2 Tablespoons Honey

1)         Preheat Oven to 400 Degrees

2)         Cream Butter and Sugar

3)         Stir in all remaining ingredients

4)         Pour into 2 round 9-inch baking pans (greased and floured)

5)         Bake 22 minutes

Ketchup on a Steak

I’m a literary omnivore.

I read a range of things (see a list of some picks).  My to-be-read pile has a very eclectic mix:

Those Who Hunt By Night – Barbara Hambly
Fear Unnamed – Tim Lebbon
The Passage – Justin Cronin
They Thirst – Robert McCammon
The Mothers – Vardis Fisher
The Disappearance – Philip Wylie
Distress – Greg Egan
Earth Abides – George R. Stewart
11/22/63 – Stephen King
The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
Time After Time – Jack Finney
The Conquest of Gaul – Julius Caesar
The Civil War – Julius Caesar
Scipio Africanus – B.H. Liddell Hart
The Landmark Thucydides – Robert B. Strassler
The Landmark Herodus – Robert B. Strassler
Guns, Germs, and Steel – Jared Diamond
Masters of the Air – Donald L. Miller
D-Day – George E. Koskimaki
Hell’s Highway – George E. Koskimaki
The Battered Bastards of Bastogne – George E. Koskimaki
A Blood-Dimmed Tide – Gerald Astor
June 6, 1944 – Gerald Astor
The Return of Little Big Man – Thomas Berger
Past Worlds: Atlas of Archaeology – Collin Renfrew

I began reading a lot in kindergarten, and early in elementary school my mother would accompany me to the county public library because her adult card allowed her to check out more books than my kid’s card did.

I read much of my elementary school’s library across a range from Encyclopedia Brown to biographies of people like Charles Proteus Steinmetz, Edgar Allan Poe to Damon Runyon, Mark Twain to Judy Blume.

I remember when I was in third grade I would read my mother’s Harlequin Romance novels when I ran out of something to read.

I’ve continued the variety into adulthood.

One thing that any reader and writer is faced with is taste.  No one knows what sparks someone’s taste buds, exciting them with the flavors they’re experiencing.  And what resonates with one person can fall flat with another.  Doesn’t mean the story sucks.  It just means it didn’t strike the right notes.

I’m aware when I run across issues with plotting, cliches, awkward dialogue, etc.  But to be honest – none of that has ever been an impediment to a book catching fire with an audience.  Many bestsellers have fallen under criticism for less-than-award-winning writing.  Bridges of Madison County had lines like, “You’re big-time elegant, Francesca, in the purest sense of that word.”  Twilight has faced criticism from even Stephen King.

Personally, I don’t give a crap and try to stay out of that kind of thing.

I like it when people read.  I especially like it when they read my own work – and enjoy it.  But I think it’s great for anyone to discover what it is that sets their imagination aflame when they read a particular work.  The two books I just mentioned did that.  Maybe not for everyone, but they did what their authors wanted and did it to a phenomenal degree.

I think I’m sort of an anti-snob snob.

I don’t like being told what I should or should not enjoy.  My tastes are my own.  When I don’t like something, I can usually articulate what it is that didn’t appeal to me, or at least what my response was.  But I don’t consider my opinion to mean that something sucks.

For instance, comedians.  I don’t find Kristen Wiig funny.  I wish that weren’t so, as she’s currently enjoying a lot of popular success and it’s always nice to be part of the wave.  But I’ve just never laughed at any of the skits or clips I’ve seen her in.  But then, I also didn’t find fellow SNL alums Will Farrell or Chevy Chase funny to any degree, either.  It’s not the deadpan delivery.  Phil Hartman was as deadpan as they came and I found him extremely funny.  But I suppose I also don’t often find the over-the-top comedians quite so funny, either, as it usually feels like they’re trying too hard for my attention.  I’ve still liked comedians like Chris Rock, Adam Sandler (on SNL at least), Robin Williams, Bill Hicks, and a number of others.  Taste is just something that’s individual to anyone.  And again, it doesn’t mean that if I don’t like one, they suck.

I don’t care for people trying to insist on the *right* way to eat something.  I think humans have pretty much figured out the eating part by the first day or so of life, just like any creature.  There are innumerable people who will work themselves into a tizzy over someone pairing the wrong wine with the wrong food, or food served the wrong way, using the wrong fork, and so on.  For what it’s worth, I know a bit about wine, but I also know that most people don’t have the tastebuds to distinguish the subtle nuances of many wines (or to know quite how they interact with whatever foods are being enjoyed), let alone be able to distinguish tap water from supposedly exquisite designer bottled water.  And frankly, I’d rather get a $10 bottle of wine than a more expensive and refined one.  Maybe it’s the practical in me.  I dunno.

When I grill a steak, if someone wants it well-done, I make it well-done.  I’ve never heard anyone who wanted a well-done steak complain that it was too tough or lacked flavor or juices or any of the complaints that someone insisting on the purity of a product might say happens when you “ruin” a steak by cooking it too long.  Also, if someone wants ketchup on their steak, be my guest.  I’ve got that and any other condiment they might want.

I’ve read reviews that praise books that just didn’t strike the right notes for me.  And the flip side is true.  There isn’t a bestseller out there that doesn’t have one-star reviews excoriating it for how terrible it is.

I tend to read books both subjectively and objectively when I enjoy them.  When I don’t enjoy them so much, I try to just retain the objectivity about what I see in the writing.  Because most times, these books really did appeal to some people.  They just weren’t my thing.

As for predicting what strikes my fancy, as I mention, it varies quite a bit.

Explain-y Writing

Modern writing comes with certain common rules – “eliminate excess words,” “avoid adverbs,” “write what you know,” and the classic advice of “show, don’t tell.”

Sometimes “show, don’t tell” dovetails into “eliminate excess words.”  There are many times you can remove exposition with a pretty good illustration.

Sometimes the showing goes in the other direction, becoming more wordy than the telling.

The process of reading should be as immersive and entertaining as possible.

I don’t really like to use the term “telling.”  I prefer “explain-y.”  There is a lot of explain-y writing out there, and I try not to add to it, as much as I can manage.

Fantasy and sci-fi, particularly through at least the 1950s, often has a tendency to be explain-y: during long stretches of information-heavy dialogue, “discovered” diary entries or documents that are provided in full with no filter for what’s needed, or detailed prose descriptions that establish or even interrupt a scene.

Partly this is because of the need to impart technical or historical overviews, build worlds, provide the often numerous characters with backgrounds, etc.  When a writer has invested considerable time researching the technically possible or envisioning a world, there’s a natural tendency to want to ensure that a reader will see it all.  But maybe that isn’t necessary, or even the point.

There are writers like Cormac McCarthy who employ a minimalist approach, and often do a lot of showing and not very much telling.  In The Road McCarthy doesn’t even bother to provide names for the main characters – a tactic he’s employed before.  Nor does he explain the cause of the original apocalyptic events.  He knows his focus and the rest is extraneous.

When a character launches into a detailed dialogue explanation, it can be technically interesting, but not so much entertaining and not very authentic-sounding by modern dialogue conventions.  The same for whatever delivery method an author chooses to employ to lead the reader firmly by the hand and point out this detail, and that detail, and that detail…  Sometimes the quest for authenticity overtakes necessity.

Stephen King has often employed excerpts from “official documents” or “government hearings” in his books – from Carrie, to The Dead Zone, The Stand, and others.  He treats these documents the way he does dialogue – condensing them down to only what’s needed.  Contrast this with a recent bestseller from another author that employed a full eight pages of back-and-forth email correspondence – quoted verbatim and with considerable extraneous discussion.  There’s no doubt the emails sounded authentic.  This particular author (who is talented and who King himself praised) is an academic and infused his verbatim emails between academics with authenticity.  Whether or not it was necessary, it was his choice.  Every author faces conflicts between choice and necessity.

A series of books faces the challenge of whether or not to bring new readers up to speed who might come into the series in the middle or later, or even how much to remind existing readers of the series what has gone on before.  I’ve faced this issue with the second and third books of my Winter Fade series.  I mostly chose to simply allow the characters interact with one another because they already shared history and were quite comfortable.  Yet I did feel the need to reflect upon certain things that had happened in the first book – simply because there were relevant events they affected in the other two books.

I think some writers take the whole “show, don’t tell” thing to heart in such a way that they’re concerned with how to give a character background.  The truth is that character backgrounds can work quite well and enrich a story, giving depth and drawing in a reader.  At least when done well enough.  Stephen King has always employed character backgrounds – ranging from a few spare but incisive sentences to entire pages of background that establish a scene.  It’s typically done in an entertaining enough fashion that I doubt many people have complained much about the telling.

I just finished reading Patricia Briggs’s Moon Called and she was effective at scattering background here and there throughout the entire first half of the book, small flashbacks and asides that added color to particular scenes.  A different approach than what King usually takes.  King has almost always established a character pretty much as they’re introduced.  The Stand – usually the consensus favorite of his fans – launches almost immediately from the opening page into a 700-word background of Stu Redman’s entire history.  But it’s interesting, because King is one heck of a good storyteller.  He does the same with each of the many characters he introduces throughout the first half of the book, not in dribbles or drabbles, but in deluges that make each character immediately familiar to a reader.

For whatever it’s worth, I think these two great books I just mentioned – both of which I thoroughly enjoyed – have relatively weak ending climaxes.  The bulk of the story for each book is so entertaining that the weak ending climaxes are forgivable.  King even literally applied a deus ex machina in The Stand to annihilate the Las Vegas faction of Randall Flagg.  Briggs had to do some very minor “explain-y” dialogue in her climax to make the antagonists’ motivations more clear for the reader.  She covered a tremendous amount of ground in the first three-quarters of the story, establishing an entire world and the relations between its inhabitants very ambitiously and effectively for the amount of space she used. I think she could have spent just a slight bit more time on the minor characters who were the focus of the climax and whose motivations were central.  But it’s a minor complaint and doesn’t detract from the re-readability of this book.

Laundry-list character descriptions are a common “show-don’t-tell” complaint, for very good reason.  They’re often over-used.  Still, they can be effective if they’re written in the right way.  A great example is Anne Rice’s opening to The Vampire Lestat.  She launches into Lestat’s self-description of his entire physical self, but it works.

It works because it is a form of showing.  It reveals Lestat’s nature by means of his description.  A reader immediately realizes how vain and yet self-confident he is:

I am The Vampire Lestat. I’m immortal. More or less. The light of the sun, the sustained heat of an intense fire — these things might destroy me. But then again, they might not.

I’m six feet tall, which was fairly impressive in the 1780s when I was a young mortal man. It’s not bad now. I have thick blond hair, not quite shoulder length, and rather curly, which appears white under fluorescent light. My eyes are gray, but they absorb the colors blue or violet easily from surfaces around them. And I have a fairly short narrow nose, and a mouth that is well shaped but just a little too big for my face. It can look very mean, or extremely generous, my mouth. It always looks sensual. But emotions and attitudes are always reflected in my entire expression. I have a continuously animated face.

Donna Boyd did something similar with the werewolves of her “Devoncroix Dynasty” books (which if anyone is a fan of Anne Rice’s writing might want to take a look at – The Passion, The Promise, and Renegade).  These characters embody an arrogant confidence in themselves.  They like to be seen and admired by humans (opening pages can be viewed here in Amazon’s search inside the book function).

Telling can be done in a clumsy or compelling manner, and it’s all up to the writer.  It can be effective as background or in dialogue, or in the case of older science fiction it can feel dated by our modern tastes, populated by too many exclamation marks and too lengthy explanations that don’t feel like natural dialogue.

Writers should focus on doing what feels comfortable and what works for readers.  There are too many effective styles out there to condense into anything other than that they entertain their readers.  I do feel that “showing” is an essential part of any writer’s toolkit.  But I also believe that “telling” can be and is always done well in the right hands.  Just as long as it doesn’t go overboard and become “explain-y” – since the latter has a tendency to yank a reader’s interest away from a story.

Traditional versus Self-Publishing

I really hate to wade into a debate that’s been argued from any number of perspectives.

But I read a blog entry that appealed to me, as it was well-reasoned and taking more of a middle-ground:

http://chrisseysgreatescape.wordpress.com/2012/03/02/mind-the-middlemen/

I posted my own comment to the entry, but I thought I would repeat it here:

I would say that traditionally published works will have fewer typos and grammar errors. That would be the main distinction. And I’ve encountered typos and grammar mistakes (albeit few in each work) in books that have been published at any time in the past century, including many bestsellers.

To be honest, a great amount of dreck has always been traditionally published. I’ve read and encountered cheesy novels dating to the early part of the 20th century and every decade in between then and now. Ditto for garish or eye-poppingly bad cover art, quickly dashed-off blurbs on the back, and overwrought language. We tend to look fondly at great bodies of works because we skim the cream off the top of a deep latte grande. The books that remain on shelves month in and month out and are restocked become familiar to us while the overwhelming majority of books follow a revolving door and are consigned ignominious fates in temporary bargain bins and then on to dog-eared used book stacks or garage sales.

Editing has always been hit or miss and unevenly applied – it’s subjective anyway, as is taste. Stephen King’s “The Stand” was edited for length by the Accounting group and didn’t suffer for sales and is still considered the consensus fan favorite of his books. Many bestsellers face little editing and sell regardless, even though editing would have made them even better. Some literary books face heavy and agonizing editing and sell few copies, gaining only a wide mix of critical reviews.

I’m seeing more midlisters – good, solid, experienced authors – turning toward self-publishing because the industry is undergoing another change just as it has done decade in and out for well over a century. There have been upheavals and changes before, and no decade in publishing can really compare to any other.

What I also see is that there are few outlets for visibility for new authors, or midlisters who sell modestly. With the demise of Borders – after two decades of massive consolidation from publishing houses on down to the few big retailers, as well as shifts toward trade paperbacks to reclaim profitability in a middle ground while eroding mass market paperbacks – the truth is that many authors will see their books appear for perhaps a couple months at Barnes & Noble before being relegated to online sales until they fall out of print. There aren’t enough indie stores with enough shelf space to take enough chances on the volume of work produced each year, let alone maintain what already is capable of sustaining sales and business.

Promotion falls to authors for the most part in traditional publishing – other than a slim group whose sales keep profitability going and subsidize the majority of other authors.

Given the current landscape and barring an extremely rare happenstance of being tapped as one of that year’s limited promotion slots, many traditionally published authors get to do their own promotion and most sales will probably happen online due to limited appearance for a couple months in physical stores.

Self-published authors get to do their own promotion and most sales will probably happen online due to limited appearance for a couple months on consignment in indie stores.

As you note, indie authors need to distinguish themselves from the greater likelihood of more typos and grammar issues. As far as story editing – a lot of work in both traditional and self-published has never been burdened by a great need for tightening stories, developing characters, eliminating deus ex machina author interventions, Mary Sue protagonists, cliches, and factual mistakes. I can name bestsellers going back decades that have glaring faults in all these categories. The reason any book sells is sometimes intangible because it strikes the right notes at the right time with the right confluence of audience. Sometimes promotion creates a bestseller (and just as often fails). Often success begets success as long as such authors maintain their connection to readers and tastes – but these can slip from the grasp of even very talented authors.

Snooki was “validated” by the publishing industry because she would sell books. A lot of churned out genre whose author names never reach public awareness in the way King or Patterson or Grafton or many others have done also receive validation, for whatever it ends up being worth (not much for many authors, whose later works end up in different publishing houses or follow the self-published route). This is all simply reality although the debate often triggers resentment from both sides and accusations and recriminations.

Publishing has to focus on profitability since that’s key to its existence. Ditto for booksellers like Barnes & Noble and especially the indies. So the shift like you noted is toward more the guaranteed moneymakers while even the steady-but-modest authors may be better served in self-publishing, particularly since it no longer holds the stigma it once did.

(Sorry for the long comment – the blog post touched on some good points and I wanted to share my perspective, which aligns with and supplements many of the ones mentioned).