Friday, March 20, 2015
I didn't grow up in the Greatest Generation like my mother, though. I was on the tail end of the Baby Boomers, the hippie sub-section, in the late sixties and the seventies. I feel as if I got the best of all worlds, beause not only was the nation still in a postwar boom, but we had a lot of respect for intellectualism and had a so-called "middlebrow culture" in which people felt it important to at least know many authors of "canon" novels and be aware of classical music (Western art music), acknowledging that these things have stood the test of time and must have merit (even if you personally don't prefer it.)
Nowadays, everyone has an opinion, and all opinions are equally valued. People post their opinions and views everywhere and consider that their say is just as valid and important as that of an expert in the field. We see a lot of people contradicting what scientists who are working in the field say, and we see people dismissing the advice of those who are studying whatever it is (world events/politics, music, whatever) and saying that their opinions are just as valid as the experts. "The End of Expertise" has been bemoaned (note my appropriate use of the passive voice, heh), and I think it IS a shame. Doctors know more about how to treat patients than the patients do. Professors of a discipline know more (even if you don't like what they say) than novices in the field.
The ancients were neither stupid nor ignorant. We are where we are because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Much that we know today is based on research and knowledge from the past. I mourn the Library at Alexandria and wonder just how much we've had to rediscover because of its burning. We can learn much from listening to the greats (and even the lesser lights) or the past. We can learn a lot from just watching and listening to those of today, too. We might find out a lot if we don't discount the views of those who seem to oppose us.
BUT ANYWAY. I've noticed a change in the way that readers read, and it kind of hurts me.
Once upon a time, the "average" reader appreciated many of the allusions and literary r3eferences in books. Lots of people were conversant with Shakespeare's plays and with the King James Bible (as literature and history, at least), and many were conversant with a large section of the Great Books (by which I mean the Odyssey, Lysistrata, She Stoops to Conquer, the Commedia dell'Arte, The Importance of Being Earnest, etc.) The Western Canon was not despised but was largely revered. My dad and his mentor Angus Pearson knew EVERYTHING. You could ask either of them anything and they could provide an answer that was correct--sometimes as a result of an educated guess. If you ever watched the PBS series "Connections," you understand what I mean when I say that the knowledgebase you have will allow fairly accurate predictions in related questions. I saw my dad and Angus as perfect. When I was a child, I determined to be just like them when I grew up.
Now I find people complaining about encountering any sort of cultural reference in a novel or story. They say it "is just there to fill pages" and that it irritates them, and often they don't get it at all. People have asked me why I would have any reference in my novels to other novels or to plays, movies, and so forth.
Great Books founder Mortimer Adler (I think) was the first to use the term "The Great Conversation" to refer to the body of work that is the Western Canon in English (and other books that didn't get on the list, as well.) He points out that authors have a Great Conversation going with one another. If you "get" the allusions and references, it deepens your understanding of what the author you're now reading is saying. It adds resonance to the current story and relates it back to what has gone before. Donald E. Westlake used to get away with a LOT of this, as did Lawrence Block. Some now call them self-indulgent for doing it. I disagree.
If an author writes that a character looks like Cary Grant or Frank Sinatra . . . it's probably ME, so let's reframe that . . . I am using those older icons for a reason. I believe that most people have seen Grant and Sinatra on the screen and will twig to what I mean, that the character's general demeanor or charm makes you think of the actor. If I write that someone sounds like Garrison Keillor, perhaps that is a bit more obscure (he hosts Prairie Home Companion on PBS radio and has for many years--his "Lake Wobegon Days" was a huge best-seller and I still get lots of inspiration from his radio programs.) Still, those who get it will get it, and I think it will deepen their first impression of that character AND of the character who sees him that way. In other words, if Kay perceives Whit as sounding like Keillor, then you know she is the sort to listen to PBS.
Oh, I don't know. Perhaps it's fruitless to discuss this. Either you like this sort of thing or you don't. I don't use references to ephemeral things that won't be remembered in a couple of years because I know that will date the text badly. I think that most literate people should have some knowledge of the Western canon and of the culture before hip-hop ruled and baggy pants were on everyone's radar. I could, of course, be wrong.
But if you're thinking those allusions are just thrown in to fill space, or if they're tossed in without a lot of consideration, you're wrong. I always have a reason for referring to "It's a Wonderful Life" or "All About Eve" or whatever. I think other authors do, as well.
Just clearin' that one up for the Gipper.
Monday, March 9, 2015
But I figured out several life lessons from these books, and I want to pass them along.
I write mysteries (among other genres), but I do not put stuff in there that is grossout or psychotic. I believe the artist has a responsibility to society as far as not giving ideas to those among us who are twisted and who will pick up on these things and go out to actually do them. Ugh. The "from the psycho's POV" chapters especially bother me because they have such explicit psychotic thoughts. The author(s) must be psychopaths or they couldn't think this stuff up. My promise to my readers guarantees that you won't get thoughts such as, "Which body part will I cut out of this victim and keep in a jar?" or anything similar. Ugh!
ANYway. *ahem* I came up with several LIFE LESSONS people can learn from the idiotic actions of the idiots contained within these tomes.
LESSON: Have a "safeword" or codeword that you will use to signal to someone who gets your e-mail or phone message or phone call that YOU ARE IN TROUBLE. "Banana" or "puce" or "ankendosh." This is a word you will slip into any email you are forced to write or phonecall you are forced to make. Conversely, you may choose to put a different safe word somewhere in your legit emails so that the recipient knows you are OK or can guess where you are being held. Yes, some criminals will twig to what you are doing, but most evildoers are too dumb to figure it out. It's worth trying. SOME form of this should be in your bag of tricks.
One protagonist's sister supposedly sends her this email including "don't try to find me." This is so out of character that if it had been legit, it should have had the "banana" codeword in it. Because it does not, you know this is fake. OR . . . during the phone call that someone gets from her child while she is being held hostage (and you're supposed to convince the child you are not being held hostage), if the keyword "banana" is slipped in, the child knows there's trouble. This is something your child should have for herself! If someone shows up to pick her up from school or a party and does not give the codeword, RUN!
LESSON: If your sister or friend disappears and you go into her home, CHANGE THOSE LOCKS IMMEDIATELY. Duh!! Also, install a spycam to see who comes and goes. In this book, Amy hears someone who has a key actually opening the front door of Becky's apartment while Amy is in there. She didn't change the locks! She didn't do a spycam! Dumb! TSTL! If neighbors have had keys, take them away and change those locks. Take any laptop computers with you the first time you visit the place. Also any pets. This is just common sense!
LESSON: Never have a locking room or closet that locks from the outside with a hasp and doesn't unlock from inside. This guarantees (in these novels) that you will be locked in there, either to die or to suffer. If you see someone has installed a padlock and hasp, RUN. Have your cell phone charged and ON YOU at all times, like in a pocket. When I broke my kneecap and had surgery, my mom tied my cell phone around my neck on a long shoelace. This isn't completely wack, because then I could walk on the crutches and still have the phone if I didn't have pockets. Anyway--you don't need a room that locks you in from the outside. Which is worse--having someone steal some rusty garden tools out of your backyard shed, or getting locked into it?
LESSON: Have a hidey-hole in which you keep cash and a weapon (knife or even a Glock). This should be a fake electrical outlet or a fake cable TV outlet in the wall of your bedroom by the headboard OR in your bathroom. That way you can get to these things when the bad guy lets you go to the bathroom. It is insane NOT to have something hidden too well for the people to find. In a previous book by the same author(s), the search described of the property would not have turned up the hidey-hole and she could have gotten away. But then there would have been no book. Keep a screwdriver to remove door hinges. Whatever you might need. Or have a hidden panel like Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr, in the back of the closet that you will hide in when the perp comes to get you.
And obeying the order to "not call the cops" and instead going solo to meet a stranger in a strange place . . . TSTL.
Slutty behavior is not a plus for me, so I don't respect the women who do this stuff at all. In MARFA LIGHTS, yes, Ari is weak and she takes comfort one time when she definitely should not have. But she did know the guy and he had been "vetted" by Gil and by society in general, so it wasn't as risky as it could have been. The incident was meant to show that she was so shaken up that she needed some sort of comfort, and that was what was available. Also, it was the opening move in the endgame because it allowed the dude to steal something of hers. Slutty behavior is when the women try to hook up all the time with whoever and don't seem to have any sort of standards. (IMHO, in a book!)
So . . . if you read a book like this, learn those life lessons it offers. Do as I SAY, not as THEY DO! Keep yourself safer out there.
Saturday, January 3, 2015
First, the Ultimate Reading Quest is on, sponsored by a homeschooling/teachers site!
Do you search for something new to read fairly often? So do I. I read books as part of judging contests, but that's not enough new material. So I think you should take the quiz/quest and get some suggestions for new reads.
(Please excuse the tone of the paragraphs that follow and the ugly yellow button. It's what the people who run the Reading Quest site sent us to use. Bah! But I didn't want to edit it TOO heavily.)
CLICK THE UGLY BUTTON ABOVE TO START SEARCHING FOR BOOKS
WATCH THE VIDEO TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE READING QUEST
Happy New Year from all the authors in the Ultimate Reading Quest! This year we want you to enjoy your reading more than ever. So in 2015, the Ultimate Reading Quest has more, more, more. More authors and more books means more mystery, more danger, more intrigue, and more edge-of-your-seat adventure. We want you to fill that Kindle, tablet, or E-reader you got for Christmas.
Who doesn't love searching for treasure? The ULTIMATE READING QUEST is about finding books that are perfectly suited to your reading taste. AND to thank you for participating, the authors have decided to give away oodles of prizes for free. Enter your name to win Amazon cards and free books from authors. Treasured books are waiting to be discovered!
Don't forget to enter the raffle on the first page of the Quest. And please leave comments or questions for the authors of the Quest. We would love to hear from you.
Click on the big ugly gold button above or below to get started on your QUEST for the next ULTIMATE READ.
CLICK ON THE BUTTON ABOVE (DUH)
Next, you can vote for my book covers in a contest that will win my books some promo! No money at stake, just promotion, which I need almost worse than money. You get to vote for ten covers--and three of mine are in the running, believe it or not. (Believe it!)
See all the covers here.
Then go to the poll (it's just one page--you mark the ten covers you liked best. APRIL, MAYBE JUNE is in the top third, then NICE WORK, then LITTLE RITUALS at the very end! Pick seven others and submit poll. Grin!)
You can only vote once in the poll . . . so be sure you do it right. (LOL)
APRIL, MAYBE JUNE page:
NICE WORK page:
LITTLE RITUALS page:
Isn't it cool how you can include a Facebook post in your very blog post itself? I copied the HTML ("embed post"), so don't be too impressed. Most of my HTML is hand-coded and is very basic.
Anyhow . . . what are your New Year's resolutions?
Mine include getting my mother's health and situation straightened out so that taking care of her doesn't take up all of my time and more, and getting my books out there so they are noticed by readers. I know that if I can only reach the proper audience, they could take off like a goose who got goosed by a gander.
Happy New Year! May this year be WAY better than the crappy one we just tossed!
Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Critique groups will always carp on something or another. When a powerhouse agent was considering taking on MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS, she sent me a list of issues. One of the issues was that Ariadne owned a carved wooden box that Aaron had given her back at the height of their love (or whatever it was). The box had a unicorn motif. When *I* see a unicorn motif, it evokes the Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters museum, from Renaissance times. It evokes a sense of mystery and mysticism. I think of the boyfriend I had who said I reminded him of the Jimi Hendrix song "Little Wing" and how I had come unto him as he sat quietly, as a unicorn approaches a virgin. This tidbit is in Ari's history as well.
Guess what? The agent wrote, "Unicorns are things for young girls. Why would she want a box with that on it?"
Well . . . I didn't want to enumerate all that stuff in the narrative. I had already hinted at the unicorn being a symbol of innocence and of the Virgin Mary (which is what it represented in medieval times!), and I had let readers know the box was sentimental to Ari. I thought that was a silly thing to carp about, and I didn't change that in the final text.
She didn't take me on for representation, either.
But now writers are freed from the tyranny of agents/big publishing. We now live by the tyranny of being unable to get the word out about our work instead. (LOL)
However, I think it might be instructive to take a look at the reasons I did what I did in this story. You may bring up questions and problems in the comments. That would be fun.
A CHRISTMAS MEMORY: MY GREATEST GIFT
A fictionalized memoir of an imagined Christmas miracle
by Denise Weeks
I'll never forget the year I almost missed Christmas.
(This is the hook, presumably. I am not satisfied with it, because it telegraphs what happens, in a way, but readers say that without this, many people won't engage with the story. So it stands, for the moment.)
On the afternoon before Christmas Eve, our final bell rang, dismissing school for the next entire week and a half for Christmas break.
(Setting the date and time. Also, we are taken into the past because we're now reading about that year mentioned in line one.)
Mrs. Mischen turned from the whiteboard and smiled down at our sixth grade classroom. "Y'all have a great holiday. And come back ready to work!" She dusted her hands as every desk instantly got vacated. She called after me, "Madeleine Pierce, remember you owe me a book report on the book I lent you!"
(This gives you the age of the protagonist. She's in sixth grade. We don't need to quibble about exact age. Also, we see that Madeleine is the teacher's pet, and perhaps you'll think that is disgusting. You know that she goes by her full name.)
I waved in reply. Of course I would be reading it at my first opportunity so I could write one of my typically prolix (SAT study word) analyses. This teacher always wrote comments back that made sense, which is why I always enjoyed doing extra-credit work.
(Readers should now suspect her aspiration to be a scholar and get a scholarship. She does extra-credit work and already has a list of SAT study words. But she has a supportive teacher. Wonk!)
Despite being slightly delayed by this exchange, I was one of the first out of the school. As I skipped down the concrete steps, tiny snowflakes dusted my head and arms. I smiled. The cold didn't bother me . . . nothing could bother me. It was finally Christmas!
(Yes, she does have some enthusiasm for the holiday. . . .)
"Christmas won't be Christmas if I don't get everything I want." Michelle Stevens' voice pierced the cloud of falling flakes directly behind me. "It'll really suck. I asked for a tablet and a new smartphone and a cashmere twin set and some other stuff, and I'd better get it all." She huffed, but I didn't think it was from the cold. "I cannot abide my brother and I can barely be civil to my parents. I hate to think of being cooped up in that house with them for nearly two weeks."
(We see the attitude that some people have.)
"I know, right? I can't stand my family." Lindsay McIrate commiserated in a vicious tone. "If there weren't presents, and good ones, I would never be able to stay in that house at all."
I resisted an eyeroll because someone would be sure to see it and report back, and then they'd start with me, just when I was almost free. I was polite and civil to everyone, don't get me wrong, but I couldn't understand these ungrateful rich girls who didn't socialize with anyone below A Certain Station or people who didn't have designer clothes. Maybe our family doesn't have that much--even less now that Dad had remarried and was "forgetting" to send his child support check most of the time--but I'd rather be on food stamps and Medicaid than have such a lack of appreciation for what we had, the way they did. It was almost comical the way those two complained about their fancy this and their designer that and how they just couldn't wear something from Sears or whatever. Give me a break.
(You will notice that Madeleine is not walking out with a friend. The situation is that her best friend moved away a month ago and she hasn't made any other special friends, but I couldn't shoehorn that in--I already have backstory and telling here. Readers who are sharp will surmise that she's kind of a loner, though.)
But I had to concede they had a point about being stuck at home. If only I were older and could drive. My sisters and I got along fairly well as long as they stayed out of my stuff, but could I take them in close proximity (another SAT word) for the entire break? My mother was beginning to be difficult because she had no idea that she needed to relax her helicopter status, since logically you couldn't still put the same restrictions on me as you did the younger ones. She couldn't let go and realize I was becoming a teenager, so sometimes it was a little touchy with her.
(She has issues and right now doesn't entirely appreciate her family. This is to show how she changes by story's end.)
As soon as I was out of sight of the crowd (especially those two), I skipped along, catching cold little snowflakes on my tongue. The snow wasn't sticking, so there was no problem walking in it, although my eyes began stinging a little from the cold.
At the bottom of the hill was our house, a humble abode completely unlike the one Dad now shared with Miss Hotpants, but it was all ours and had no residue from the screaming and fighting Mom and Dad used to do all the time. Actually, we all got along pretty well as long as my little sisters stayed out of everyone else's things. I would just deal with it.
Shucking off my heavy coat (it was a size too small already, but I managed with scarves to fill the gap) and the mittens that I'd crocheted from recycled yarn (I unraveled Lissa's old sweater that had so many holes), I heard Lainie's boom box blasting Frank Sinatra Christmas carols. She'd always had a thing for the Rat Pack and swing music, which she could indulge at Christmastime with very little teasing.
(The family is struggling and her coat is already too small, in case readers missed the hints from before.)
"Madeleine?" Mama called me into the kitchen. She had her cat-ate-canary face on.
My sisters were watching me from around the big room where they were wrapping last-minute presents and putting the final touches on the tree. That was unusual in itself--all of them cooperating. I'd seldom felt such a sense of expectancy hanging in the air.
Lainie, although the second oldest, after me, could never keep a secret. "You'll never guess . . . but we're going to have a little money this year."
"Elaine," Mama said in her warning voice. "This is Mother's news."
Lissa (Melissa), only six, couldn't contain herself. "The lady in the big house on top of the hill wants a 'girl' to help serve and clean up on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning for her huge gathering." I didn't even know she knew the word "gathering."
"Mrs. Franzblau?" I couldn't keep the surprise out of my voice.
"We do speak, you know." Mama smiled. They knew one another from women's church auxiliary and from Eastern Star, which for some reason Mama is still in although Daddy was the Mason. "And guess who she mentioned, by name?" "Me?" I wasn't sure if my heart was pounding from excitement or trepidation.
"Yes! I know you've been saying you want more independence and freedom, and this tells you I've been listening." She winked. "You'll go over there around noon on Christmas Eve and help in the kitchen and hand out food and take coats and such. Then in the morning you'll fix the big breakfast and help with whatever until they're done. They've promised you'll get a present." Mama was obviously expecting me to get something GOOD. "Of course, you'll get paid." She named a handsome figure. "We really need it this year."
(Yes, quite a surprise. We now see that Mama knows that Madeleine is chafing at the bit somewhat and thinks she needs more independence. She thinks Madeleine is ready for this sort of thing. Or does she? Maybe she is hoping this will be a lesson of sorts. . . .)
So there are reasons an author does what she does. They may not be good reasons, but by Jiminy she has them. . . .
Sunday, November 30, 2014
I'm currently helping someone design a workshop, and I just read, once again, the silly “Show, Don’t Tell.” This advice has now exceeded the limits of my medication. This confuses so many writers because ALL storytelling is TELLING, isn't it? "Show" means DRAMATIZE, meaning "make a scene out of it with background, action, conflict, talking," and "Tell" means "narrate or summarize/encapsulate, OR briefly do what Dwight Swain (XOX) calls "sequel" with the character musing about what happened and what may need to be done next." OK?
DRAMATIZE, don't NARRATE, all of the SPINE scenes and the interesting action. Cool stuff mustn't happen offscreen. Put it in center focus. This is not a play, where you can't portray some locations, nor is it a film, where the producer won't pay for you to travel to Outer Gorotoland to film the scene on the waterfall. This is text! Write anything you can make me believe!
And dramatize what the characters are like instead of telling me about it--he's a cheapskate, so make him pick up a penny left on the counter by someone who wanted to help a person who's short a penny. (A shopkeeper at a bakery did this in FRONT of ME the other day--she looked down at her countertop as I was checking out and said, "Oh, look, a penny, so I'll take it," and snatched it up--so I will never go THERE again!) She's nice, so even though she has just been drenched by the neighbor's sprinklers as she cut across the lawn because she's already late, let her save the cat out of the tree for the children. Don't JUST tell me she's nice. You can foreshadow by having someone say, "That nice Jane?" But then you can twist it by later showing Jane being meeean and the lady either lying, kidding, or easily fooled/mistaken.
Also, SKIP the boring parts--don't tell me that "she got into the car, started it, turned the wheel, left the parking lot, drove down the street to the bar, parked in a terrible spot, walked onto the sidewalk, got into the bar, visored her hand to look around the disco, etc." I see this in endless published novels put out by the major NYC houses, and I wonder what was wrong with the editor. Just do a scene break from when Joe slaps down the ten-dollar bill and says, "Go find her," and "Leslie visored her hand against the flashing lights of the disco." Three octothorp(e)s, centered, indicate a scene break in manuscripts.
Oh, and when you ARE telling, use that strong and artful voice of yours. Make it fun to read, and readers will lap it up. Never let a critgroup, partner, or editor dumb down or dilute your voice and make you sound like everyone else.
That is all.