Scribbling Scrivener Reads: A Lasting Impression by Tamera Alexander

A Lasting Impression by Tamera Alexander is a historical fiction novel primarily set in Nashville’s Belmont Mansion shortly after the Civil War. We follow Claire Laurent as she has to suddenly flee New Orleans for Nashville. She arrives with virtually nothing to her name other than showing signs of promising artistic talent. It’s her talent that is at the center of the story as her father owned an art gallery in New Orleans. Not everything they sold was on the up and up as he used his wife and later daughter to create copies and forgeries of famous artists. However upon her arrival in Nashville, Claire no longer wishes to engage in forgeries and desires to paint her own work.

After spending her first night in a church she happens to overhear a conversation between two of the church’s parishioners about open interviews at Belmont Mansion. Sensing this is her way to earn a living she is determined to go to the interviews. With a little help of an introduction by the church’s Reverend, she gets an interview. The rest of the book spends the time following Claire’s journey as she wrestles with her past and to reconcile it with her present and future.

I picked this book for a couple of reasons. The first being it’s been a while since I’ve read historical fiction and I missed it. The second being on a recent vacation to Nashville I happen to tour the mansion and picked up this book and another one set in Belmont Mansion.

My reaction to A Lasting Impression is rather mixed. What I enjoyed the best was since I’ve actually been to the mansion it was easy for me to see the details Alexander does a great job of including in the book. I could even very easily see the exterior and grounds even though Belmont Mansion is surrounded by Belmont University. I think Alexander’s attention to the setting was one of the strengths of the book. She also does a great job bringing out all five senses which as a writer is an area I struggle with. The time period is as rich and vivid as Belmont Mansion.

Another thing I liked about the book is the premise. I enjoyed reading a book set in a city other than New York or London. I appreciated Claire being a painter and hoping to become self-sufficient with especially in a time period where a woman’s options were very limited. Her main goal is to survive and evade her father’s business partner rather than catch some guy’s eye. Along the way that obviously happens because what would a novel like this be without that?

Overall I thought the characters were okay. As mentioned earlier, Claire is rather unique in many respects. I liked she wanted to make her own way in life. However it wasn’t until the love interest, Sutton Monroe, steps in at the end does it start to become more of a tangible possibility. Claire grated on me frequently because no matter how much she wanted to reveal the truth of her background, she doesn’t until forced to at the end. A whole lot of guilt could have been avoided. She lies for months apparently distracted by the near fairy-tale world she lives in at Belmont.

While Claire is the focal point, we do get a few chapters in Sutton Monroe’s point-of-view. I felt he was rather dull and, at times, kind of a jerk. Not toward Claire, but he has a few odd thoughts I found off putting and questioned if I was allowing my modern reader brain to cloud my judgement. It’s a possibility. His chapters also felt like they were there to provide more of the romantic aspect to the story. While I applaud the author for showing the development of romantic feelings from the male’s point-of-view, the style in which he was written was too close to how Claire was written. What I mean by this is instead of sounding like two different people with their own unique voices both come across as similar.

The supporting characters were cookie cutter and fit a lot of stereotypes I had a hard time excusing. Adelicia Acklen, the real-life builder and owner of Belmont Mansion, comes across as the typical strong-willed woman far ahead of her time. This is a trope I see a lot in historical fiction. Other supporting characters from the servants to name dropping real life members of Nashville society to other fictional characters, everyone is just there. The story suffers from a lack of a real villain. Not that all stories need a flesh and blood villain. Certainly the biggest villain can be ourselves which I think is truly Claire’s biggest villain. But the one “villain” of the book isn’t developed and makes an appearance at the beginning and end.

Which segue ways into one of the main issues I had with the book. Claire has this huge secret and there is a person in Nashville who can expose her, yet the “villain” waits until the last quarter of the book to confront her. Keep in mind he waited more than six months of them both being in the same town to contact her and despite knowing Claire’s employer is one of the most well-known and powerful people in Nashville. It felt like the author forgot all about these details to focus more on developing the romance between Claire and Sutton. Then the ending had to be written and a major plot point had to be wrapped up and thus we get the villain at the end.

My biggest problems with A Lasting Impression come from the author employing several pet peeves I have as a reader. The biggest one being an overwhelming need to emphasize certain words for no reason. And this wasn’t a device used sparingly or just for certain characters. Page after page contained at least three words emphasized no matter who was talking. As a reader it feels too much like the author telling me which words should have added meaning. Or to show me a speaking pattern? I’m not sure the point. Also, no one talks that way. Ever.

Another device employed by Alexander is telling the reader over and over again who people are in relation to the character. Yes, I understand that Cara Netta is Sutton’s kind of girlfriend. I got that the first time you told me. Yes, I understand Claire’s father told her she had no talent. Remember that scene you gave me at the beginning? I don’t need dozens of reminders even though I know it constantly weighs upon her mind. It’s as if the author doesn’t trust the audience to recall who people are.

Overall, A Lasting Impression was enjoyable but the combination of a rushed ending, main characters who sounded too much alike, and a lot of my pet peeves being utilized knocked down the rating to three pencils out of five.

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Weekly Musing: Blog Tourism

I feel like I use this phrase quite a bit, but when I first started writing I’d never heard of blog tours. Honestly until I started doing research for this week’s post I hadn’t even seen one. The blogs I read and follow lean heavily toward authors rambling about writing or history. There have been plenty of guest posts on those sites, usually authors with a book out, but nothing like an actual blog tour.

First, let’s start with a definition. A blog tour is when an author visits a bunch of blogs during a set time to promote their book. From guest posts, email or video interviews, chatting with the blogger and his or her audience, or posting a video the author has created themselves or anything else, a blog tour comprises of a variety of promotional elements. Essentially it’s like an in-person book tour but is supposed to be more cost-effective and efficient.

But like any tour, it must be organized. That’s where things become interesting and where money can be a factor. There are two ways to go about a blog tour: 1) contact a blog tour company (yes, you read that right), or 2) organize your own.

Let’s start with door number one. A blog tour company is a website which charges money, amounts vary wildly depending on the company and what your needs are, to organize a blog tour. The very basic service a blog tour company offers is they supposedly have a list of bloggers they’ve vetted and match the book where appropriate. The author works with the company to determine what time period is open to “tour” the blogs. In addition to “touring”, you’re also paying for other kinds of promotional material the blog tour company provides. These usually include links on the blog tour company’s website, a blurb about the book and the author, running giveaways, promoting the book on the company’s social media, and creating a tour page. Some offer services such as Facebook parties, creating a book trailer, and including reviews*. One site I went to even offers to help authors how to market their book in addition to traditional blog tour services.

*Regarding reviews, I was unable to tell from the websites I looked at whether or not these are paid reviews, a bit of a no-no, or if their bloggers agree to post their review of the book.

Let’s talking pricing. The price ranges were all over the place with most offering packages in the $35 to $100 to one outfit who’s only two options would cost you either $1,000 or $2,500. That company made me a little suspicious considering they talked at length about how they used blog tours for market research. Also it seemed they didn’t offer anything spectacularly different other than heavily emphasizing reviews were the primary goal. With the exception of this one company, it seemed like what others offered and the variety of packages seemed quite reasonable.

Of course there’s door number two. Doing the work on your own. It seemed to me that it would be completely plausible and doable for an author to cobble together his or her own blog tour. That requires a ton of work on the author’s part, which would draw time away from writing. Even with the paid option time is required on the author’s part.

If you go it alone, and I read the posts of authors who have organized their own tour, it simply comes down to knowing which blogs would be a good fit. If you have author friends with blogs, they’d be a great place to start. Even if you don’t have author friends search blogs within your genre and contact them. Also, if there are blogs you follow, contact them.

Another possible option is a website I found called BlogTour.org that is free. Bloggers and authors sign up and register either their blog or books or both. Depending on what your preferences, you’ll get an email when someone is interested in speaking with you. Using the website you start a conversation. I signed up for it myself both as a blogger and to also list the three anthologies I’m in out of curiosity. Since I just signed up a few days ago I don’t have anything to report on, but it again, it looks like it could be a good, free resource for authors wishing to create their own blog tour. Or it could flood your inbox with spam. We’ll see.

One difficulty I ran into was trying to determine if blog tours are beneficial. I found a couple of posts by authors who tried blog tours with mixed results. However, most posts I read the authors seemed please and reported a healthy bump in sales. At the very least they were getting their name out there. I can understand the hesitancy by authors to do a blog tour especially if they pay for it. By the time you have a book to launch you’ve more than likely paid for an editor, a cover designer, and possibly someone to format it as an eBook. So spending even more money for marketing is another burden with an uncertain result.

When I started researching this topic my original thought was this might yet another example of a way from people to prey upon authors for an ineffective service. But, on the surface, it seems like blog tours might be something which can be valuable. And it seems like something an author could put together on their own and still be effective.

Personally, assuming blog tours are still a thing by the time I have a novel ready to be birthed, I could see myself engaging in one. I know what my limits are. For example, I’m not creating a book cover on my own. My brother got the visual artistic ability and I suck at arts and crafts. Therefore I’ll seek out a book cover designer. While I’m fairly comfortable with my editing abilities, I’m still going to hire a professional editor. And I know for a fact I don’t have the time or knowledge to figure out promotion. I like the idea of working with someone whose job it is to market authors. The key to all of this is to do your homework and select reputable people and companies.

Weekly Musing: Best Piece of Advice

Flipping back through older posts I realize I’ve never talked about the best writing advice. Probably because writing advice is such a large and conflicting field that it’s hard to pick out those nuggets that I think are worth it.

Your Rough Draft Will Be Shit – Or if you’re me, your second, third, fourth, and maybe even final draft will be a big pile of crap. It’s very difficult to imagine our favorite books starting out as garbage and often took years to turn into the finished we product we all love. The fact some famous books are still garbage in their final drafts is scary.

Another way to look at it comes from Terry Pratchett, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” Maybe this is why I consider my first few drafts to be garbage. The first couple drafts find me fumbling around trying to figure the characters out and what the story is. I find this frustrating because I have done some sort of an outline, spending days brainstorming about plot points only to have most of those thrown out the window when I sit down to write. Maybe it’s not a case of me telling myself the story but the characters telling me what the story is.

Finish It – This one piece of advice I believe is great, but also consider it something which could hamstring a writer. I believe it’s great because yes, you should try and finish every story. To quote Neil Gaiman, “You will learn more from a glorious failure then you will from something you have never finished.” Yes, yes you can. You can learn that maybe the concept, genre, length, characters, whatever, isn’t for you at that moment or even ever. You can learn where your deficiencies lie and learn to strengthen your skills. You can learn what your strengths are and play those up.

But at the same time it’s okay not to finish. We all have several unfinished short stories and novels lying around our computers. I myself have a few stories and a couple of novels that are nowhere near completion. My reasons for stopping boil down to either telling myself the idea is stupid (it probably isn’t) or I got bored. I think this is unbelievably common for writers at all levels. Sometimes people stop a project because they personally weren’t ready for it. This could mean emotionally, or felt their skill level wasn’t quite there, or life simply got in the way. And sometimes there are some projects that just need to be stopped and never looked at ever again.

Don’t Listen to the Noise – I can’t really attribute this to any specific person. I guess you could say this is my own piece of advice. I’m not being arrogant or all-knowing when I suggest distancing yourself from the “noise”. What I mean by “noise” is all the articles, interviews, conferences, and yes, blog posts, we are inundated with. I’m not suggesting you never read or listen to advice. We are lifelong learners and should be open to new ideas as well as knowing what’s going on in the publishing world.

But it can be overwhelming. When it starts affecting your writing, perhaps it’s time to turn away from the noise. It’s incredibly easy to spend hours reading and learning about the craft and business and completely forget to actually write. Or to be bogged down by paralyzing thoughts. Is my work is sellable? Is my main character is sympathetic and likeable enough? What will my critique partner or group going to think about this chapter? Do I suck? It’s not long before you find yourself staring at a blank screen or the bottom of a liquor bottle without one word written.

The trick for each writer becomes to learn when it is appropriate to let the noise in. It’s not while you are drafting or researching or when the kernel of an idea pops up and needs to be written down. I can’t tell you when the right time is because each person must figure it out.

You Don’t Have to Physically Write Everyday – “Ass in Chair” and “Write Everyday No Matter What” are phrases drilled into writers pretty much from the beginning. These phrases are intended to get across writing is not easy and takes a lot of work and dedication. Unfortunately I think it also creates this notion that if one doesn’t write every single day of their life, then you clearly aren’t dedicated enough and aren’t a real writer.

This simply isn’t true. Anne Rice stated in a combined interview with her son she writes when inspired while her son tends to write daily. Both approaches work. Think about musicians. Some write songs almost every day. Some write at the studio when told by the record label they want another album. Still others write when the muse hits then go to the studio to record when there’s enough material.

Writing is the same. Some people are great at cranking out words every single day. Others work best in flurries of inspiration. One isn’t inherently better or will lead to success quicker than the other will. Instead of feeling guilty about not writing every day, be comfortable with what you are able to do. If you want to increase your word count, great. Figure out how to squeeze in those extra words but don’t beat yourself up.

I’m also bothered by the idea it is better to force oneself to write on a day the words aren’t flowing than to not write at all. Maybe because I’m a perfectionist and am really, really hard of myself, but I personally feel better if I take a day or two off if my brain is fried. Forcing myself when is a disservice to the characters and story. This doesn’t mean I don’t try to force myself. I do try to write every day, but I’ve noticed when my brain is tapped it takes longer to get into the groove. When I do take a few days off, I have more energy to tackle the story.

Finally, just because you aren’t physically writing doesn’t mean you aren’t writing. What I mean is subconsciously your brain is always working. Ever wonder why in the middle of the night or in the shower you have a “Eureka!” moment around a plot point you’ve been stuck on for days? That’s your brain writing, if you will.

 

The biggest and best piece of advice I have ever seen is figure out what works for you. Your process will evolve. May change from story to story. Or maybe you hit gold and find a consistent, winning process. But writing is not something with one “right” path. Realize advice you thought was solid may no longer apply. Or you realize how silly it is. Also, don’t be in awe of who is giving the advice. Be okay with questioning it and disregarding it even if it came out of the mouth of your favorite author.