Thursday, January 31, 2008

Bad books: they piss me off

As a writer, I'm naturally critical of other writers. It's a "déformation professionnelle," a result of what I do. A lot of the times I'm awed and humbled by the talent, imagination, creativity and skill of the writers I read.

Lately, however, I've been annoyed by the quality, or lack thereof, of some of the books I've read. Devil May Cry, by Sherrilynn Kenyon, is a case in point. This book is so bad I can't even push myself to finish it. I don't have the stomach for it.

I'm not really a fan of paranormal romance --usually vampires who reform because of a "pure" woman-- but I thought I'd pick up Kenyon's eleventh Dark-Hunter Novel since I'd read and heard that the series had gathered a cult following. Her blurb states that Kenyon "has more than ten million copies of her books in print in twenty-six countries," so I thought okay, this might be worth a try. BIG mistake.

What's to like about this book? The setting? There's none, really, except for a casino in Vegas or the occasional visit to Mount Olympus. The characters? The female protagonist is a mix of Goody-two-shoes and kick-ass bitch (when the story needs it) and the male protagonist is a bitter, hard, distrustful, deep-in-his-soul-hurt ex-god who melts in love with miss Goody-two-shoes in about five minutes. The story? They are fighting an invincible force of demons -- except when they kick the demons' asses-- who will inherit the earth if they're not stopped.

Add to that teleportation, pitiful sex scenes, healing powers, and a bitch-goddess-who-must-not-be -killed, and you have Devil May Cry.

Oh, and did I mention the writing? It's so bad it's an insult to readers everywhere. Unless it's an indication of the expectations of readers out there, which depresses me no end.

But in case you don't believe me, here are a few extracts that might convince you:

"Sin smiled in spite of himself. Her humor should irritate him, but instead he found it a refreshing relief from the seriousness of the situation. Honestly, he couldn't remember any time in his life he'd enjoyed more than this time with her. And all things considered, this had to be the worst part of his existence, since they were only days away from Armageeddon."

"any time in his life"? This ex-god is about nine thousand years old. He's just realized his twin has become a super-vampire monster, his mother is imprisoned lest she destroys the entire world, and the girl's mother is the one who stole his godhood. Hmmm.

"She stuck her tongue out at him in a playful gesture that somehow managed to be adorable on her.

What was wrong with him?

"Just be a spoilsport, why don't you?"

He supposed he was. He wanted to be playful like her, but he wasn't. A the end of the day, he was all about doom and gloom and he couldn't help wondering what his brother was up to.[...]

"...I can't let the Dimme out and I can't allow Kessar to win in this. Whatever it takes. Whoever I have to sacrifice. I will do what I have to to keep them away from the innocent."

She couldn't imagine the strength inside him that would allow him to carry out such a thing. She laid her head on his chest and held him close as she tried to fathom the source of his courage [...] He was incredible."

Had enough yet? I have. Even with that kind of writing, if the story were compelling, I'd keep reading. But it's not. After 150 pages, the action hasn't started yet.

Am I too critical? Don't think so. Getting published, let alone read, is so incredibly hard. There are hundreds --heck, thousands-- of writers who are struggling with awesome material and not getting anywhere because publishers prefer a good bet like Kenyon. I find it more than frustrating that this kind of stuff is getting published while other more deserving authors are bypassed because they're unknowns.

The conclusion in all that? Cult following, my keister. It's "we made money from the first five, so let's farm out more. The suckers will buy them."

Consider this a wake-up call. Censure? Readers are subjected to it every day by these publishers' bad, bad choices.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The importance of taking notes

I have, in previous posts, stressed the importance not of being Ernest but of writing every day. Last week I was reminded of something else very important when you're writing a novel: taking notes.

See, if you spend all your time writing and you're immersed in it every day several hours a day, every detail is immediate and alive for you. The reality, however, is that life interferes, just as with my buying/selling a house saga.

Which means that I forget. My new story happens on a planet way off the beaten path and it not only has a different climate and geography it also has a different flora and fauna, a dialect close to scandinavian, different names, etc.

Then there are details of what my characters look like, said at certain points in their journey, decided, wanted to do, have done, when and where.

When did the lawyerly man visit Nor'Winds? Was it the second or third day of Sarena's arrival at the ranch? What as the name of her tranek again? What's the name of that root they use to make cloth? What is the color of Alysisa's eyes?

Going back into the story to remind yourself can be a big waste of your writing time. A bigger waste of time than jotting down as you go along the decisions, big and small, you make.

Aha, you'll say, but if you'd written and outline and sketched out your characters before you started writing, you wouldn't have to take those notes.

Possibly. On the other hand, an outline is exactly that: a preliminary draft or plan. It is subject to change, and probably will change considerably, as you begin to write your story. I may have thought my main character would behave in such a way or make that decision but suddenly it doesn't make sense. He's taking his own life in hand and goes... that way. Or I may decide that I don't like the glacial age I placed my story into and change it to the desert. Or my main characters now hate each other instead of falling in love.

Worse, halfway into writing the first draft I may decide that my protagonist couldn't have made that particular decision so I change the outcome. I can't afford, however, going back to that specific decision and edit it because if I do that, I'll enter editing instead of writing mode (more on that) and won't finish the story.

How's a girl to remember all these changes and shifts in direction? Throughout the years, I've developed some loosely structured categories. I fill them up as I go along. I'll also often make a sketch of the house or place where my character(s) live so I can refer to it. Here are some of the categories I use during my first draft:
  1. Characters: Every person that enters and exits my story goes in there. I'll enter as much detail as possible on them, and not only physical characteristics but who they work for or what they do, what their nickname is, what the relationship with my main characters is, etc.
  2. Features of the story: From the name of the flowers that bloom for one day on Samhain to the number of legs a tranek has, to the orientation of the protagonist's house or the street it is on, any detail that I may have to remember later on and reuse.
  3. Scenes/details to remember: whether my protagonist is contemplating his second sunrise on his new home planet while he's making a life-changing decision or whether one of my secondary characters decides to go into Charlie's for a pint, if these scenes will have a sequel later on, I jot them down.
  4. Changes: I don't like my main characters hair color, or I've decided that she would never act a certain way, I'll jot it down. It'll get changed in the second pass.
So there you have it. Taking notes will not only save you time, but will help you on those subsequent drafts you'll be writing.

What, you thought only one kick at the can was enough? Think again. More on that in a future post.

Friday, January 25, 2008


I haven’t been able to settle myself and write – even critique others’ writing, since I finished the edit changes of my new novel and sent the file off to my editor on Monday. Not having heard back from either editor or publisher that they received everything A-okay, as we used to say, is also putting me on edge. This blog entry is a tentative move toward clearing out the cobwebs of ensnarements past and setting out on new paths.

Perhaps the editing wouldn’t have been as traumatic if I’d not had to fight with software for a week. My editor uses Track Changer in Microsoft Word. Being a purist with a strong distaste for corporate sharp practices, I use Word Perfect. I also run a much older version of Windows than is currently producing obscene profits for Bill Gates. In order to be able to handle files sent to me by people who are slaves to the system and use late versions of Word, I also have the free download of Sun Microsystem’s Open Office software.

I started by running the Track Changed doc file in Open Office – until it balked at my choosing to reject some of the insertions my editor had added. (The novel has elements of engineering and military description that she was obviously not familiar with, but her initial queries and tactful questions eventually gave way to outright directives about matters she did not understand.) I could easily have smoothed over the human misdirection but after a short fight, the software decided to no longer give me the opportunity to either accept or reject the changes.

I had been keeping up a copy of the file in Word Perfect, so when I asked her for a new working file in rtf I only lost a day transferring the changes. I used a new copy of the doc file that I took from the original e-mailed edits as my guide. Two days later my rtf copy in Word Perfect went crazy. Two lines of text per page and large chunks of text – whole pages – missed out. Reluctantly I switched to Open Office with the file to continue working. That lasted until next day, when Open Office couldn’t handle the file either – the same two lines of text per page, but these appeared sideways, in landscape mode.

Deciding what to do, and contemplating having to start all over again with a new file. I noticed that the original file had magnified to over 2 Meg in size and wondered if that might be a symptom of the problem. I decided to switch to Wordpad – remembering the way I use Notepad to strip all the formatting residue from files I want to send in clean text. Opening the file in Wordpad – fingers crossed because I didn’t know if it would refuse to open something so large – I found all the pages filled with text, and no blocks of text missing. I saved the file and opened it again in Word Perfect. Perfect was the word – no problems at all now. The file that had collected so much irrelevant formatting and correction trash because of the buried Track Changer commands had shrunk back to a clean 740 kb. Only another one day wasted – but I didn’t have to start all over again – I was almost on the last lap. I’d promised the completed edits for Sunday, but deciding to be safe, I elected to read the whole novel from beginning to end to do final edits and ensure no software bombs were hidden in the pages. I managed to send it off Monday evening.

Why do I feel as if I’ve just given birth?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Writing withdrawals

It's been a very difficult two months for several reasons. If you've read previous entries, you'll know that I've been suffering from Effexor withdrawal symptoms, that we were in the process of buying a condo and of preparing our house for sale. Experts say that moving is one of the most stressful elements in a life, after a death or a divorce.

I've been managing fairly well but there's a consequence to all this "new" activity I hadn't considered: I'm not writing.

It's not that every minute of my time is filled up, it's that it's hard to get into the mode where there are a million things to think about. Every time I mention writing habits, I always say to try to write every day, if only a few words. I'm not sure I ever explained why: it's that you lose momentum and, after a short while, you stop dead.

See, even though writing is my life, my passion, my job, I don't feel like doing it any more. I don't think it has to do with me needing to find a new job. It has to do with routine. A well-known author --cant' remember the name-- said that if she waited for inspiration, she'd write two days a year. And that's it.

Writing is all about routine. Some call it discipline, and it is that, as well, but it's also a way to get the brain trained into writing mode. A mode where it goes into painful contractions if it's not used to use words.

After a while, like any withdrawal symptoms from any drug, the effects go away and you're left with only the memories of it. This is not whining self-pity; it's a hard realization for me, because yesterday I tried to think when I last wrote, and I couldn't remember. I started to panic.

So today, this morning, I'm getting back into the routine, if only for writing that single page that will get me going. Time to train the brain back into doing its calisthenics, and producing those endorphins that give me such a rush.