Weekly Musing: Book It!

Nope, not talking about the awesome program from the ’80s/’90s where you read a certain amount of books and got to go Pizza Hut (I think that was it) and make your own little personal pan pizza. I loved that program. Combine reading with food and I’m there.

What this week’s musing is inspired by is something I attend once a month: A book club. This is the first time I’ve ever been in a book club but it was something I always wanted to. Thanks to the internet I was able to find more than one. I tried a couple of others before settling on the one I regularly attend.

I really enjoy my book club. Our focus is on sci-fi, fantasy, or horror books. This isn’t unusual since most book clubs are centered on a particular theme. The people are fairly smart, someone brings baked goods (again food + book = good times), people’s t-shirts are interesting, and it’s just neat being around a group of people where we have at least one thing in common. I enjoy listening to other people’s thoughts about the book regardless of if I agree with people’s opinions or not. I enjoy the thought provoking questions asked by the group’s leader which usually revolve around issues today.

Yet for all the positives I get out of it, lately I’m beginning to wonder, as a writer, if it is good for me. I think it’s just my own neurosis but when I listen to what the average reader thinks of the story, the characters, the writing style, what have you, I start to wonder. Wonder about people’s critical thinking skills and if some people really, truly cannot grasp the idea of something must be impossible because it doesn’t jive with how they understand the world and therefore it’s a failure of the author. Heaven forbid the reader take some responsibility to think a little harder or admit “Hey, I just don’t get it.” I’ll readily admit I don’t get what authors are doing sometimes.

I guess as a writer and knowing authors I get a little bit defensive. Especially when I hear a reader criticizing a male author for trying something new like having a female main character and not writing her ‘feminine enough’ and that he should stick to what he knows. Or people not understanding that when the story shifts to a different character that the writing style should naturally change. What I mean by this is the grammar of the character changes, speaking and thought style, and how the character views their world. Some people apparently can’t appreciate this and quickly launch into how the author is a bad writer for doing this. I guess they prefer all their characters to sound exactly the same regardless of life experiences and origins.

At times this mentality gets to me as I’ll sometimes examine my own work and my own ideas and wonder if the average reader will ‘get’ it. Should I trust a story with ugly, unlikeable characters as the focus when it feels that so many average readers don’t like that? Will a reader truly understand the aim at realism which means the good, the bad, the ugly, and the uncomfortable?  Does the average reader care about subtext and depth a good story should have?

Granted some of this is dependent upon genre and the expected tropes but I see online people up in arms over an author who dares to defy those tropes! Again, I think a lot of these thoughts and worries are a byproduct of my naturally anxious nature. It’s one of those things where I know intellectually to stay true to the story and the characters and the audience will be there for my work (hopefully). Or to not care if everyone gets it because not everyone will. I certainly don’t as a reader. Yet emotionally, and because of the chemicals which make up my personality, I want people to completely understand and appreciate nuances a writer has puts into a work. When someone doesn’t, it irritates me.

So are book clubs a good thing for a writer to attend? Those writers with thicker skins and who can separate the reader you vs. writer you, then yes. If you can’t, then perhaps not. For me I need to work more on just enjoying the discussions as a reader and leave the writer on the pages it is needed on.

Weekly Musing: Make Every Word Count

Word counts. A metric many of us writers become obsessed with. How many words did I write today, this week, this month, this year? Do I count new words for my revision when I’ve just deleted an entire page, scene, or chapter? Do I delete the cut words from my overall word count? Do word counts even matter? How the hell can one tell a story in just 500 words or less? How the hell can someone tell a story in more than 2,000 words? Those two little words sound simple but can cause a lot of anxiety for some.

To me there are two definitions of word count. The first one is the one which refers to actual word production or output. This year is the first year I’ve personally started to track my output. It’s kind of eye-opening in many respects. My own personal rule is to only count new words written in relation to a novel, short story, or blog post. I don’t count other stuff like FB posts or writing in my personal journal. At first I thought this made a lot of sense but whenever I revise, how the heck do I count that? I still haven’t quite figured it out and doubt I will by the end of the year.

Another thing that opened my eyes is by keeping track of my approximate production, I see just how much or little I write. I admit I don’t write every day since I like to let things sit for a bit, have an inability to juggle a bunch of stories at one time, or if I’m doing research. And occasionally real life wants in like knocking me down with a migraine or something else.

It’s interesting seeing how much I’ve gotten done by month. For example, for the first quarter of this year I wrote approximately 105,518 words. That’s a lot but doesn’t tell the whole story. January and February, when I was focused on working on my novel’s rough draft, my production was huge while March’s numbers were much smaller. But while March’s numbers weren’t big, that doesn’t necessarily translate into being less productive because I drafted, finalized, and submitted one story as well drafting two other stories for upcoming deadlines. That’s a lot more ‘storytelling’ if you will, then what took place in January and February.

The other definition of word count is one defined by guidelines from various publishers. Flash fiction is usually any story with a count of up to 1,000 words. To be considered a short story, the word count can be up to 20,000 words although I personally have yet to see any calls for stories anywhere near that length. 10,000 words max is the highest limit I’ve seen and that’s only be a scant few times. The average seems to be from 1,000 to 5,000 words. Within the novella camp, the word count definition gets even more confusing. Again, depending on whoever’s guidelines an author is looking at, a novella can be up to 40,000 words. Or more. Who knows. And when talking about novels, that’s wide open. Some shorter works like Eli Wiesel’s Night I’ve seen classified as a novel even though it’s about 100 pages. Yet there are plenty of books well north of 600, 770, 800, or 900 pages.

Numbers and writers don’t mix usually so throwing out that simple term word count is scary. It’s amazing to think regardless if a writer bangs out a ton of words in a year or relatively little that both paths can lead to success. Or those people I know who can easily tell a story is as few words as possible while I feel utterly incapable of telling a story in no less than 3,000 words can lead to success.

With word counts in all their forms, whether personal or professional, we once again see that there is no one correct, or easy, path to success. Just make every word count.

 

Weekly Musing: What Would You Bring?

If I ever had the misfortune to be stranded on a deserted island or find myself in some kind of isolation, whether by choice or forced, what books would I take with me and why? Assuming I’m allowed to bring reading material with me. I better be or bad things would happen quite quickly.

There is no way I could narrow this list down into just a handful of books. Hopefully I’m allowed to bring some boxes and get help with said boxes since I prefer paper books. Part of it would also to serve as shade if the place I was marooned on was too sunny or bright. Maybe even serve as kindling although to burn a book really has never been acceptable to me. But in desperate times who knows what one might do. If not, then the island or wherever, better have at least one electrical outlet to recharge my Kindle.

Since I’d have a lot of time on my hands, I’d pick a lot of series and sweeping epics since several hundred pages of worlds and characters would hopefully keep me distracted. Probably a good idea to bring a complete dictionary, too, since there are sure to be words I wouldn’t know and because, hey, it’s the dictionary and kinda big.

Let’s divide up my choices into the following categories.

Book I’ve Read:

Any book listed as one of my favorites on this site would clearly be on there. I’d also throw on there some of my most recent favorites like The Sleeping Dictionary, The Martian, A Confederacy of Dunces, American Gods, and Frankenstein.

Book Series:

Great thing about a lot of books published in the last couple of decades is a lot of them come in sets. Perfect for complete isolation.

A Song of Ice & Fire – If I were ever in this situation I would hope it would be after the series is completed.

Harry Potter

Outlander – I’ve only read the first book but with 8 books and counting there is plenty of new-to-me material to read and enjoy.

Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey series

Ngaio Marsh’s Det. Alleyn series

The Complete Sherlock Holmes

Authors I’ve Read Most, But Not All, Of Their Books:

I’m cheating just slightly on some of these because there is some crossover with other categories.

Ken Follett

Neil Gaiman

Isabell Allende

Kurt Vonnegut

George R. R. Martin

The Classics I Own But Haven’t Read:

Don Quixote

Gone With the Wind

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Mark Twain

The Count of Monte Cristo

Overall I would want to bring with me a variety. A mixture of what I’m already familiar with and clearly enjoy as well as new stuff. Genres and writing styles would keep my mind engaged and save me from boredom. It’d also suit my somewhat fickle and indecisive nature. With no one else to have for company, these books with their hundreds of characters would become my friends to me. Their worlds would be a needed relief from the reality that would be my new norm.

Brother in Gravel Magazine

No, I’m not referring to my actual brother, but my short story Brother is now appearing in the online magazine Gravel. Check it out!

Also feel free to order either or both, the print anthologies some of my other work appears in: First Contact Café and LocoThology 2013: Tales of Fantasy and Science Fiction (now available on Kindle).

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: The Big Bad II edited by John G. Hartness and Emily Lavin Leverett

The short story horror anthology The Big Bad II has an unique concept. Instead of stories told from the good guy’s POV or with the good guy defeating the bad guy, the baddies are the ones telling the story. And not just any kind of baddie, but the ones who dominate nightmares, the bad guys who show up in fairy tales, children’s movies, and bad horror movies.

The challenge of The Big Bad II is to take well-known, and some not-so-well-known, villains and make their stories somehow compelling, perhaps even sympathetic. Overall the stories in the anthology do that. Another challenge is how to balance tone. While this is probably considered a horror anthology, it’s simply not just blood and guts. Like any good, well-balanced anthology, there are funny stories, scary and gruesome stories, and even some sad stories.

While I enjoyed almost all of the stories in the anthology, some of my favorite stories were:

Voodooesque – A much more subtle take on voodoo. Instead of focusing on dolls or other charms one normally associates with this dark art, scents and smell are the key ingredients. Set in Charleston, SC in the 1800s, our two main characters are a black woman with her own shop and a formerly rich white man comes to her in search of help to woo a wealthy widow. Each engages in voodoo although Lillian has her own shop, not everything she sells is voodoo related, and quite the reputation.

What I enjoyed about this story was the cat and mouse game between the two main characters and loved the ending. It’s a subtle twist but not anything unexpected. Having visited Charleston once it was easy for me to imagine the time of year, the sights, and the sounds that very cool city has to offer.

A Family Affair – The first of several vampire stories in the anthology, this one is set during the 1950s. Our main character is the matriarch of a family whose main goal is to keep her family together and away from negative influences. So what’s a control freak supposed to do? Become a vampire, of course.

What I really liked about this story is I felt it was a humorous commentary on just how messed up the idea of the perfect family is especially in post-WWII America. The stress of the ideal family with the perfect wife, perfect husband, and perfect children rears its ugly head in a unique way.

Old Nonna – Old Nonna is rumored to be witch. People have a way of disappearing whenever they get near Old Nonna’s house which is naturally in the woods only adding further to her legend. The story really takes off when a young teenager, the daughter of illegal immigrants, flees into the woods. The woman takes her in and introduces her to her “family” which I won’t spoil for you.

What I liked about this story was the twist on the creepy witch in the forest since Old Nonna does have a soft spot for those outside of society. I also appreciate the shift in tone from the beginning which was more ominous but by the time the story is done the tone is more hopeful. A cool example of a baddie-centric story can elicit sympathy from the reader.

Letters to Logroth – This story reminds me of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in that the whole story is told through letters. Specifically one-sided letters written to Logroth’s nemesis. In those letters, Logroth is complaining about a group of people trying to locate him which it was hard to tell if he wanted or not. At first it seemed like he wanted to be rescued but then he became annoyed by their mere presence.

What I appreciated about the story is how funny it was. Logroth bitches about the looks and intelligence level of the group coming for him. In addition to being hilarious, the reader doesn’t know what type of creature or monster is until the end which is just fine with me.

A Day in the Life – Two words: Nazi Satan. Seems redundant and it is, however, the spin is once a year Satan inhabits the body of a person. In this case, a Nazi. Throughout Satan’s day in this particular Nazi’s body, he holds a conversation with one of the inmates in the concentration camp. She intrigues him because earlier in the day she watches as her brother is shot. During the conversation Satan Nazi tries to shake the faith of the inmate but is naturally unsuccessful.

What I appreciated about the story was it could have been over the top but it wasn’t. With Satan spending the day in someone else’s body each year, it shows him how humanity is at that particular point in history. Satan already has a vague idea of the life of the Nazi he is inhabiting yet any actions he does while in the person’s body can change the outcome. In the case of the Nazi, he’d never signed a death warrant, a fact that plays a huge role at the end of the story.

Portrait of the Artist as a Psychopathic Man – The title pretty much says it all. Think Dexter but with a more pretentious killer with a much bigger ego and no code. The main character wants to create art with murder. A sentiment literally beaten into him by his father who believed only pain and suffering can create great art so murder is our main character’s canvas.

As a reader I liked the idea of the wannabe killer planning how he would create his masterpiece. I’m not necessarily rooting for the killer to be successful but the thought process is interesting to follow along with in this story since it is his first attempt at his calling.

Drawing Flame – To me this story was the most unique one in the anthology. Our main character is a genie recalled by a former client to grant one more wish. The client is a dying mobster who has searched high and low for this genie before tracking him down to grant him one more wish having messed up his previous wish.

What I found so neat about the story was not just a genie as the main character, but that instead of granting three wishes, a person only gets one so it better count. I also liked that the wish has to be very detailed and well-thought or else the genie would find a loophole.

The Witch Hunter – A twist on the Snow White tale told from the POV of her nemesis now inhabiting the body at an old woman living in a nursing home. The story is funny yet bittersweet as Helena, not her real name, races against the clock to figure out what she’s supposed to do. She knows there’s some connection between a box, a mirror, an axe, and red apples but hasn’t figured out why.

I liked the humor in it especially Helena’s nicknames for the staff and some of the residents. The nicknames for the staff members in particular are telling to the reader as they hint at their significance to Helena. I also really liked how well the author knew the characters because everyone felt realistic.

 

Overall this anthology is a very strong compilation of stories. I found more pros than cons with it. Pros included the variety not only of types of characters but genres as well from traditional horror to sci-fi and time periods from the past to the future. Another strength to me is that many of these protagonists are not the typical villains we are all probably so used to reading and seeing. I also appreciated all of the stories really went for more in depth into the psychology of the characters rather than just straight up hack and slash. After all, even bad people are just as complex as good people are.

But for all its strengths, there was one big nuisance to me and that was a vast majority of the stories were told in first person. Granted, they were well-written and interesting but after a while it gets a bit annoying.

So, on a scale of one to five pencils, I give The Big Bad II a very solid four pencils.