Friday, August 29, 2014

#FridayReads: Summer Book Reviews by Christine Locke

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
I had such a strange relationship with this book.  If you've read much of what I write or tweet or facebook share about writing, you know that my favorite writing book is Stephen King's On Writing, mostly because I found it to be so no-nonsense, practical and not touchy-feely in its approach to the craft.
I'd had many people recommend Lamott's book, and although something gave me the nagging feeling that it was going to be more the touchy-feely kind, I decided to finally give it a shot.  The title, in fact, comes from advice Lamott's father gave her brother when the boy procrastinated on an essay about birds and the dad advised him to just start writing and take it "bird by bird."  Pretty practical  stuff: I like that.
Yet the author does go on and on sometimes about things like lunch menus.  I get what she's doing here: write about something, anything, and in there you meet a character or see a scene and a story gets going, maybe one you were not expecting.  It's not a bad idea; it's probably a  great one.  It's just not my thing.
And yet there are moments  in this book when a line takes me so unawares and transports me right off the page and back into my own thoughts, reflecting a creative  process with such startling clarity that I think, "There! That's it!" and I'm honestly not sure that I ever would have been able to phrase it quite so well on my own.  For that reason, I have to recommend Bird by Bird even though it's not my ideal book on writing.  It somehow comes eerily close.

The Wolf Gift by Anne Rice

Ah, the incomparable Anne.  I write gothic fiction, and I'm currently finishing that series I'm writing about a living house.  So when Rice began her story with the description of an old, rich, architecturally wondrous home full of historical treasure and human mystery and sets up her main character to fall in love as much with the house as with the woman living inside it...well, what can I say?  I was hooked.
I've written before that the house is often a/the central character in a gothic novel, and Wolves is  very much a  traditionally gothic  tale in this sense.  I loved that about it, too.  Houses from Rice's novels have stayed with me for years and years: the Mayfair house and the Talamasca haven are the first to come to mind.  But this one is special, and I hope there are many books in this series because I want to get to know this house, just as our hero does.  I hope some day I write a gothic mansion this well.

Under the Dome by Stephen King

I'm not sure why my copy of this book is actually two books, but I'm picturing the books I picked up at Walmart.  There seems to be a one-volume edition of the same story available in paperback, so I'm linking to that above.  Maybe the story was just too long for a mass-market paperback form, so it was two of them.

I read these books because we are watching the TV show.  The show is good, but I wondered where they were going with the characters, particularly the Rennies.  But then I read that King decided the book and the show would tell slightly different stories, and I suspect that the father and son pair at the heart of the evil destroying the town in the novel will not necessarily play the same role on the screen.  At any rate, the nature of evil is given more complexity in the screenplay.

The novels weave a complex story and the characters are so well drawn that I almost find them more recognizable than their small-screen counterparts.  There are some differences in age and background that I prefer in the novel.  But the characters, as much as I love them, are pretty much either good or bad.  Maybe there's something true to life there, but the truth is they are a bit one-dimensional.  But for what the story does, for what its purpose seems to be, the characters work.

If you're frustrated by the differences between the book(s) and the series, I recommend being patient.  We like our TV characters complex; it's true.  Any popular show right now has the baddies doing good things and the white-hats getting their hands dirty.  I'm not passing judgement, I'm just pointing out that that seems to be the trend.  I'm guessing that by the time the series wraps, a great story will have been told, just not the same one I read in these books.

Happy reading, happy writing: they'll both make you happier while living!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Dry Spells: Downtime and the Creative Life by Christine Locke

It's a gorgeous summer, one that I planned to spend writing.  And I am writing, but not like I did last year or even the year before that.  In an unusually rainy southern summer, I'm in the middle of a dry spell.

I'm not the first to point out that creative people need downtime.  In fact, I've just read a couple of books in my "Creative Life" project that assert this as part of the book's premise.  It's fine when I plan the downtime.  But what about the writing nights that get co-opted by sickness or home repair?  What about when those things happen when I was REALLY planning to work that night?

I didn't finish my Camp NaNo project (that would be for March).  That's a first.  I wrote about this in my book review post.  What happened?  Life.  For someone who committed in January 2012 to take this writing thing seriously, and for the most part I've been successful, this was disastrous.

But, then, you can't really write when your water heater is spraying a waterfall into your back yard.  Ditto when your "other" (rental because we couldn't sell it) house needs thousands of dollars  worth of repair and the only way to reign it in is to do some of that yourself.  Add household bouts of conjunctivitis and a raging summer cold into the mix, and, yeah.  My writing took some down time while my life went double time.

There have been some pretty serious jolts in the last few months, most of them I don't really want to think about now that they're over and I'm safely back in my office during my appointed hour to "sit butt in chair and place hands on keyboard."  I don't want to review how I got to this state, but I'm sitll here.  It's so bad, I'm not sure I even remember where I was going with that project, despite the plot charts I made.  So, what to do?

I'm going back to the advice a friend once gave me, in 2012, when I decided to try self-publishing and was wondering which project to throw out there.  "I don't know," my friend said.  "Whichever one is closest to being finished?"


Over the next few weeks as I ease back in, I'm picking up where I left off on a couple of revision projects. One thing I had ALMOST finished was the latest (I've stopped saying last) revision of the third and probably final novel in The Legacy Series. It's long overdue.

Then, I might just get back to that story chart.  Maybe.

Update: I have finished Out of Place and sent it to a professional editor.  More on that soon...

Thursday, July 24, 2014

What to Do/What Not To Do: The Bookblog Query, by Christine Locke

My beloved grandfather used to make a joke after his retirement.  He used to say that, having done it all now, he would be writing two books for the betterment of future generations:
What To Do
What Not To Do.
He was a funny guy, and the French accent he never lost added to the delivery.  I miss my grandfather. He was only kidding, but sometimes I wish he really had written those books.  So, in the spirit of Pepere's generosity,  I'm sharing my approach to querying book bloggers.


What To Do/What Not To Do: The Bookblog Query

What To Do:

Use a list of bookbloggers.
I'm amazed at how many writers--especially indie-published writers--don't know about bookblogger lists.  Here's the one I use, The Indie View.  Here you have, on one handy site, a list of bloggers looking for books, what kind of books they want, their preferred submission guidelines, and how to get in touch.  And here is an excellent post on by Kimberly Grabas on how to get reviews for your book; it contains links to EIGHT blogger lists, including The Indie View.  If you want reviews, you need to know about these lists and you need to familiarize yourself with them.

Query blogs reviewing what you write.
This seems like a no-brainer, but, hey, I understand the temptation.  I state on my blog header that I read mostly gothic and magic realism, but I get asked to review books from other genres all the time.  Serious book bloggers often have a very specific market in mind, although some just want to share the love for books and review everything--they might even have more than one reviewer posting to the blog.  So READ the genres the blog reviews.  The lists I've posted, above, clearly state the interests of the bloggers.  Be sure you only query the bloggers who review what you write.  And that leads me to....

Know what you write.
I know, I know.  Your story poured out of you, you wrote it during NaNoWriMo, it's edited, formatted, and so brilliant it does not fit neatly into any known category.  We've all felt this way, even those of us who don't want to admit it.  Then, if you're smart (and you've written a book, revised and proofread it, designed your own cover, etc, so you ARE), you'll make a decision about where your book fits BEST.  If you write fiction, here's some great advice on how to do this from Rock Your Fiction.  Rachelle Gardner also gives a few neat tricks for determining your genre here.

Have a form letter ready--and tailor it.
It's not wrong to use a form letter.  If you have experience querying agents, you may have already figured this out.  For the bookblog query, you're not going to send the exact same thing to every blogger.  The idea is to have a basic letter you can edit to fulfill each blogger's requirements.

Offer to guest post/donate for a giveaway/answer interview questions.
Bloggers need good content, so you can offer to help by writing a guest post (if you do this, give them original content).   Here's my post about guest-blogging.
It's SO easy to donate kindle copies of your book for a blogger's giveaway.  After the giveaway, the blogger will send you emails of winners.  You go to amazon and buy gift copies of your books to be sent to those email addresses.  Easy!  And a great investment, too.  I suspect I've gotten reviews from blog giveaway copies.
Some bloggers have a list of set questions for the authors they feature.  Offer to answer those, and do it on time.
These folks who blog about books have readers you want to reach.  If they put your book on their blog, readers will see it.  Offer them anything they need from you as long as it's legal and ethical--and do it politely.

Read the blog.
Self-explanatory, I hope.  But I will say this: what if you only see the blog on the blog list, go to the submission page and follow the requirements, and you don't read some of the reviews?  Well, it might not matter...then again, you might end up with your book on a blog you'd rather not publicize (insert your own political/moral/aesthetic reason here).  Read the blog.  Just do it.

Use every linky the blogger provides.
Follow this person everywhere they'd like to be followed.  Start by subscribing to the blog.  Don't you dare query a bookblogger and fail to follow her/his blog.  Don't.  Just don't.
And, once you've followed, you can give the blog some shouts.  For example, you might develop a twitter list of bookbloggers.  Your twitter friends who are also writers will appreciate this.

A few final suggestions:
On the blog,you will find submission instructions.  FOLLOW THEM.  To the last letter.
Have a polite response ready for rejections.  You can still make a professional connection out of a bookblogger who does not want to review your book.  Thank  them for considering and suggest you connect through social media anyway--after all, you share a love of literature!  You might just strike up a friendship this way, which, after all, was what this social media thing was supposed to be all about, right?
If your book is reviewed, PROMOTE the post.  Remember,  you promised to do this.  As long as the blogger lets you know about the post, you gotta follow through.  You don't even have to do this in a self-serving fashion.  You can take the opportunity to promote the book blog itself--or the blogger--instead of mentioning your own book by name.

Remember bloggers are people, and they often do this for free or for little more than free books.  Like your writing, the blog may be a labor of love, so remember that you have a lot in common and always be polite.

What Not to Do:

I do review books, though only what I would read anyway and pretty much on a whim.  Yet, the fact that I write reviews causes some folks to track me down and "query" me, to put it, um, politely.  So, yes, I DO have some idea of what NOT to do.  These items are self-explanatory, right?  Right?

Tweet at them with a link to your book.
DM them on twitter with a link to your book, or a free chapter of your book or a collection of short stories or....  Don't DM links.  Period.
Message them on goodreads with a link to your book.
Message them on goodreads with a query.
Query to their bookblog's facebook page.
Post your book on their facebook page.  (Really?  That does NOT make me want to read your book!)
Message their bookblog's facebook page with a demand that they like your writer page.
Insult them, as in "You liked that awful TFIOS and mine is WAY better!"
Ask them to review your book and then pretend not to know them when/if they respond.  Yes, it actually happened to me on one of the few occasions  I asked a querier for a review copy.  "Are you with a publisher?" she asked.  WTH?  Did you not check out my profile when you queried me?  I don't even publish my own books through a publisher!

If you blog about books at all, I bet you have a few tips you could add.  Feel free to share them in the comments....
As always, happy writing and happy reading!  They'll both make you happier while living.

Friday, June 13, 2014

#FridayReads: May/June Book Reviews, Part 1 by Christine Locke

Yes, I AM alive!  I know.  It's been three months.  I don't really want to talk about it, except to say: water heater leaking, rental house damage, water heater spraying, severe storms in my home state, rental house repair...enough said.  I'm back on my reading game and ready to share.  Here's some of what I've read while I was gone.

(A note on these book entries: I use pictures from the Barnes and Noble site because they are large and not gunked up with "look inside!" arrows.  You all know I'm an amazon fan.  There are lots of links to amazon on my blog, but the book covers are prettier at B&N.  Because I use their covers, I link to them in my reviews.)

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
I read this book in two days.  The pacing is awesome.  Read it when you have time to devote to a book, because you'll be mad if you have to get this story in small pieces.  I enjoyed the realistic character development for "Det.-Ret." Bill Hodges.  There's a particularly apt portrayal of OCD in a couple of characters, and Hodges evolves in his ability to spot the problem and respond with compassion.  I liked Hodges' young friend, Jerome, but he's a bit static in his perfection.  We hear a lot about his "identity issues," and I would have liked to see Jerome get to work that through a little more.  But I did love Jerome's interactions with OCD-plagued Holly late in the story.
Yet the most interesting--and disturbing--character in this story is our baddie, Mr. Mercedes himself.  In him, King constructs a complex monster, a killer who does not follow a profile.  While Hodges is left outside trying to figure him out--and making mistakes the reader will easily spot--King draws the reader in much closer, closer than you may want to be.  At the story rushes toward an ending, you will not be sure which of these dueling wits--Hodges or Mr. M.--will come out on top, or which characters get away alive.  The answers will surprise you!

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

It has been years since I've read an Amy Tan book, but I looked forward to her latest offering.  It was one of the books I asked for as a birthday present.  After a slow start, the story is full of challenges for our main character, Violet, but I was so devastated for her--and her mother--that for a little while it was hard to keep reading.  If this happens to you while reading this novel, I urge you to keep on.
At the end of the novel, I wanted more.  Even after the slow start, I felt that Violet's daughter does not get enough of a voice and has to summarize her childhood's events far more succinctly than an 18-year-old actually would.  I wanted to see some of her life, the way I had seen Violet's.  Tan does find a way within the plot to show you some of the child's life through the eyes of other characters, and that plotting technique worked for me.  However, I wish there had been more of that kind of revelation before Violet's daughter has to speak for herself.
I was especially touched by the depictions of reunion and forgiveness in this book.  Tan does this so well, reminding us that young adult conflicts seldom define the parent-child relationship for life.  There is much more richness in that bond revealing itself as children mature and parents age.  Tan's books remind us that, as long as you're still living, it's never too late to repair, replace or return to our vital but lost relationships.  You just have to be willing to re-imagine that bond in light of your increased experience--and let your loved one do the same.
The Valley is a good book.  I wish it had been lighter in the beginning and heavier in the end.  However, the poignant and real mother/daughter relationships that Tan excels in portraying made me glad I read this novel.

Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling

My son just finished second grade, and we were reading this book series together and discussing it.  He has stopped off  after book two for now, however, and I think I understand why.  My older children grew up reading Harry Potter novels that were published one by one as they grew.  My son is the first child interested in reading the series who has ALL the books available to him right NOW.  I'm understanding that part of the magic of this series is that the story grows up as  Harry does and as my older children did during this story's  seven-part publication.
The Sorcerer's Stone may have been appropriate for an 8 year old, but this one is not.  This is a book about love and betrayal, about innocence and guilt--and the lack of clear definition for these things at times.
The  introduction of Lupin and Sirius is wonderful.  For me, the best thing about reading this book was getting to know Hermione's  character.  I loved watching her manage the crazy schedule with less grace than was portrayed by the movie.  She's so human here, especially when standing up to Harry and Ron.  There's  a lot more tension in that trio than comes across in the silver screen account.  As Hermione struggles alone over Hagrid's problem with the hippogryff or her crisis of conscience over the broom Harry receives as a mysterious gift, the reader gains sympathy for her even while Ron and Harry seem incapable of it.  I relate to Hermione much better as a written character, and I have to say that the strain between Ron and Hermione does seem to point to future romance, even here.
In a year or two, I am sure my son will love this book about maturing  and developing an ability to perceive the pain in complex human relationships, the agony at being misunderstood, and the delight in standing by your friends only to find that they were right and true all along.

The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling

What if the epic story of Voldemort's failed return had been narrated by the Malfoys and the Dursleys--and what if they had to leave themselves out of it?  Would Harry and Dumbledore and all the crew have come off as well?  If anyone by the name of Dursley or Malfoy could not talk about themselves, would ANY character emerge as likeable?
Take a moment to think about that.  For my part, I doubt it.  I think that a more jaded point of view, whatever the reason for that perspective (jealousy, sour grapes, arrogance), would demand that all the players in the story show at least as many failings as virtues.  As the tale progressed, I imagine we'd grow quite weary of Dumbledore's arrogance (however justified) and Harry's bumbling (however brave or lucky).  In the end, although we might not particularly like Voldemort, we might not be happy about who's left standing, either--that is, if the Dursleys and the Malfoys could even tell a tale together to begin with, which I doubt.  Kinda fun trying to picture it though, huh?
And that's where I am having finally read The Casual Vacancy.  A community that is hopelessly at odds and full of unlikely connections must endure an election to resolve touchy questions regarding its own future.  No character in this story is perfect--except maybe for the dead man.  And when other characters die and we watch the post-death glamour applied to their defects, we fully understand that the dead city councilor must have had his failings, too.
With every character in this story, you see the warts first.  I think that's why it is difficult to get past the first fifty pages or so.  I know that as I read this book, I was searching for the hero.  Don't make my mistake: don't look for Harry.  Or, you know what?  Look for him, but look for him in every character, and remember that you're seeing with Mr. Dursley's eyes--or Draco's.  Your challenge is to hold on to your compassion and look beyond the prejudice or physical ugliness or the shabby trappings of your subject, and hold out for their actions to reveal complexity and goodness and a capacity for change.  Even the most despicable personalities entangled in this novel's struggle will show you something fine at some point, but you have to look for it.  You have to search for "God shining through every soul," even when you think you are dealing with a hopeless case.
Having said that, at the end of the book, I continue to be awed by Rowling's extraordinary ability to draw consistent characters, and the intricate plotting of this novel had me in tears by its end.  I didn't love how I felt reading it--I often wanted to walk away from these people and never come back.  But sticking with them had its rewards; for one thing, it gave me hope.  You don't have to know a Harry Potter for goodness to shine in the world.  Sometimes, God finds us through the most unlikely of messengers.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Friday Reads: February Book Reviews, Part Two by Christine Locke

Ok--so this one is really late!  But here's the second installment for what I read in February.

Me and Murder, She Wrote by Peter S. Fischer

I've already confessed here on the blog that I love Murder, She Wrote.  I guess the weakness for the prime-time sleuthing of Jessica Fletcher dates back to sometime in the eighties when my grandfather wheeled the TV out of its place of shame in the coat closet, plugged it in, adjusted the bunny ears, and introduced me to the murder-magnet diva of detective dramas.  I fell in love, and now I stream Mrs. Fletcher any time I want on a  myriad of internet devices--none of  which are ever banished to the coat closet.  My dear grandmother would have been horrified.
So, imagine my delight to discover Peter S. Fischer, whose name you have seen many times indeed in MSW font if you are a fan.  Mr. Fischer produced and co-created the show, and he wrote many episodes during the  first seven years.  I loved hearing all about it.  In fact, I don't remember ever being this glued to a memoir.  I might not remember all the relevant names and the vast array of 70's and 80's  TV facts--you'd have to read the books more than once--but it's an unforgettable record of how some of your old favorite shows came to be--and why some wonderful ideas didn't work out (remember Harry McGraw?  I do.).
But I first heard about Fischer as a self-published mystery author who once co-created Murder, She Wrote.  That's right. He  has now transferred the ability to write those scripts that somebody "needed yesterday" into a penchant for mystery novel-writing, and, like many epub'd authors, Fischer writes fast.  Really fast.  Like, he already has at least a dozen books out, fast--not counting the MSW memoir book.  I'm checking those out, because, really, if Fischer is the storyteller, I don't see how I can lose....

Has Anybody Here Seen Wyckham? by Peter S. Fisher

I jumped into this series with the eighth book, and I don't really know why I did that.  It may  have been accidental.  But I was  relieved to find--and pleased to relate--that it doesn't matter.  Although the series follows the adventures of the same detective throughout, each mystery also works as stand-alone entertainment.
This should come as no surprise given Fisher's background, but he writes a  great mystery, if what you like is the classic whodunnit.  I do, so I'm tickled to find this series.  Has Anybody Here Seen Wyckham? has some fun twists, and I do like the character development of  the protagonist.  That's often lacking in this kind of series.  Also--Fisher uses his extensive knowledge of Hollywood history to enrich the  series: each murder mystery is set against the backdrop of a movie you might remember being made by stars you probably love.  John Wayne figures prominently in this one.
I'll be returning for more books in the series.  And here's something else worth noting: you know those order forms that used to be in the end pages of paperbacks?  Fisher has his own publishing company, and his books have those.  Not only that, but if you order directly from his publisher, he will sign the books for you.  Sounds like fun to me!

The Wisdom of Hair by Kim Boykin

The same young woman has  been cutting my hair and my children's hair for...I'm not even sure how many years, honestly.  We  know a lot more about each  other's marriages  than perhaps some of our relatives do, and we are quite literally watching each other's children grow up.  There is something magic about the salon, and it might be a Southern thing (think Steel Magnolias, again), but I'm not sure about that.  I also  have some very fond memories of my aunt's hairdresser in Portland, Maine, who cut my hair whenever I was visiting and always made me feel at home.  I'd hear all about her through my aunt and send my best wishes back the same way.
All this to say, I'm a big believer in what Boykin calls the wisdom of  hair.  In fact, I'm working on a novel manuscript in which a salon is of central importance, so I get it.  And  I was excited to see how another novelist would handle the topic.
This book is a romance, and there are steamy scenes and sweet, young love scenes aplenty.  However, the moments in this book that I found most true and sympathetic are not the romantic ones.  I loved looking into the work life of the characters and exploring their family dynamics, especially the painfully contrasted  mother/daughter relationships of the main  character and  the mother she must escape  compared to her best friend's close and nurturing relationship with her mother.  I enjoyed Boykin's take on  work and  family and love--and especially her sharing the wisdom of hair.  I'd recommend the book.

The ABNA, UFO's and other Writers' Benchmarks by Christine Locke

Last month, I worked like mad to produce an entry for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.  It's a project I announced on my blog some time ago, but one I expected to take a long time to finish.

Originally, I was going to enter the third book in my YA series.  My betareaders, however, have given me some feedback on that, and I ended up inspired to rewrite the entire ending.  Due to some family scheduling issues, I didn't have my usual time to devote to creative composition.  That's what made me turn to my old manuscripts for ABNA  potential.

So here's what I've learned about writers' contests like ABNA and writing challenges like NaNoWriMo: they help you finish old projects.  I once heard  old,  postponed projects described as UFO's: unfinished objects.  I liked that, even though that particular writer was referring to knitting projects. I don't know when I ever thought I'd have time to complete that old tale I started thirteen years ago for my kids.  Now it's done, a UFO no more.  I may self-publish the story or just keep it in a box under the bed, I haven't decided--but it's done.  The ABNA drove me to it.

This reminds me of the best business advice I ever received.  It came from my uncle, and I was in my first real management job--a startup, remote store full of systems and people and projects for which I was ultimately responsible and a grand opening date looming too close on my horizon.  I loved the store and especially the people, but I had never managed through a grand opening before.  I was overwhelmed.

Here's what my uncle said.  The best managers never kid themselves into believing that they will go to work and solve all the problems.  You never solve all the problems, he told me.  The good manager shows up every day without fail and solves SOME of the problems.  The next day, she shows up and does the same thing--and then the next day, and the next, and the next.  Before you know it, most of the problems are solved, and that good manager and her team?  By that time, there's pretty much nothing they can't handle.

My uncle was right.  But he wasn't just right about business.  Over the years, I find that his advice is good for many endeavors.   Marriage, for example, or figuring out how to be a stepmom--or a mom.  Now, as I think about finishing those writing UFO's I find myself thinking of my uncle's management advice once more.

As you work to complete a creative project--like a novel--don't worry about solving all the problems.  Just show up at that keyboard or notebook every day (or night, in my case), and solve some of the problems.  Then show up the next night, and the next, and the next.  Before you know it, the novel is done, and there's pretty much nothing you can't handle.

Anyone joining me for Camp NaNoWriMo next month?  I might actually write a NEW novel!

Happy reading, happy writing--they'll both make you happier while living.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Friday Reads: February Book Reviews, Part One by Christine Locke

Ok--so I'm just a little late!!   This week I'm publishing a two-part collection of reviews  for my February readings....  Enjoy!  I'd love to hear what you've been reading to inspire your writing.

The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction by Nick Groom

If you write gothic novels (don't know?  have a look over here...Meanwhile, Back at the Mansion), you need to read this little book.  Unless you already have an MA in gothic lit, of course.  Groom could have titled this one: "Gothic Novelists: Why You Write What You Write."  Seriously, he covers everything from the Goths who sacked Rome to black lipstick.  I especially enjoyed the explanation of the rise of the gothic novel in the eighteenth century.  Did you know The Castle of Otoranto was not actually the first gothic novel? Did you know the Victorian novels we think of as gothic came around after the genre had already had its day in pop lit and had become more of a literary thing?  One could make the argument that we've been seeing a new flood of pop gothic novels.  What do you think?
In any case, this is a fantastic literary and historical lesson for those of us who write in the genre.  I highly recommend it.
P.S.  I also love that the paperback cover of this book has long tabs to fold in over the pages as bookmarks.

The Call to Create by Linda Schierse Leonard, Ph.D.

This book is the first of its kind that I've read.  Basically, Leonard has written a book about creativity employing Jungian archetypes to illustrate her theories. I tend to read a lot of books for writers, and Leonard's book does include writers in its audience.  But she is actually writing for creatives of all kinds, and her examples include musicians, painters, poets, actresses, etc.
One of the many aspects of this book that I appreciated is the recognition that creativity is cyclical.  Leonard explores why that is, beginning in the first chapter where she likens this to the seasons of nature. She writes that that creative "downtime" you're experiencing might just be the "winter" of your cycle.  I like that thought.  Leonard warns that creatives should not expect to be in their most productive  "season" all the time.  If you think of this the way you think of your garden, it does make sense.  And it's a much gentler explanation than "writers' block"--at least I think so!

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling

As you may know from my January reviews, I'm (re?)reading the Harry Potter books with my eight-year-old son this year.  He and I each breezed through the first one only to get a little bogged down in the second.
Yet by the time Harry is discovering the secret diary's method of communication, the story gains incredible steam.  The fantastic conclusion with Fawkes and Godric Gryffindor's gift (and how wonderful are these character names Rowling came up with?  I know it's been a long time and these things are household terms now, but still, it's worth saying) had me glued to my little kindle screen even though I know how it all turns out.
Same with my son--only, he's still borrowing his sister's paperback version.  I think a box set of these books will find its way to him soon....
And btw, if you have Amazon Prime and a kindle device, be sure to take advantage of the ability to borrow this book for "free." (It's included with the Amazon Prime fee, along with a lot of other stuff that makes membership worth your while.  They're not even paying me to say that.)

Monday, February 3, 2014

My Top Ten Writers' Resources by Christine Locke

1.  A Newbie's Guide to Publishing
J. A. Konrath quite unselfishly shares his journey (click here for his extensive backlist) through publishing--both traditional and independent--in this informative blog.  This was where I found the courage to self-publish Open Door in 2012, and I've learned so much from that process that I've become much more confident in my writing and in sharing my writing.  Whether or not you intend to self-publish, the blog lets you know a lot about the practical side of being a "real" writer--which involves minding your writing the way your would mind a business you own.  Sticking your head in the sand regarding the money connected to your art/writing is NOT part of being a good artist/writer.  I think that stereotype is probably dying out, but it's still out there, and it makes some of us afraid to take on responsibility for producing and exposing our work.  It's not wrong to treat your writing like a business.  These days, it's irresponsible NOT to.  Read the blog.  It's helpful stuff.

2.  Follow Rachel Thompson on twitter: twitter help, amazon help, indie help.
Rachel Thompson is a great person to watch on social media.  She's even good at Google+.  You will learn a great deal about your own promotion style by reading her advice and watching her develop her own career as an indie-published writer.  I've found it especially helpful to follow her twitter account.  For one thing, she shares rules to follow (helping you avoid embarrassing newbie mistakes).  But it's also interesting to watch her start conversation hashtags (some work, some don't), and she shares a lot about why some stuff works and some doesn't.  Rachel tweets a lot; put her on a list so you don't miss out.  And btw, #MondayBlogs, yeah, that one worked out.

3.  Like the Writers Write page on Facebook.
These folks are wonderful; they always have inspirational posts aplenty.  Also, if you have other writers following your author page (you have one of those, right?), or if you have readers who enjoy sharing what inspires you, Writer's Write has no shortage of images and information to share to your own page.  You should also like Book Riot and The Millions for all the same reasons.

4.  Follow Neil Gaiman on twitter.  Follow Chuck Wendig on twitter.  Observe and compare.
Both these authors use twitter effectively, making it fun to observe their different styles.  One is traditionally published.  One uses both traditional and self-publishing.  They both self-promote successfully while balancing those efforts with the kind of humorous sharing and informing that social media is designed to facilitate.  I enjoy Wendig's #bdub tweets about his cute kid.  Also, I've noticed that both authors SEEM to favor twitter over other SM, like me.  That's just a personal observation; I have no idea whether or not it is actually true.  But it is true that writers who are "out there" on SM seem to catch on with some sites better than others.  I guess there may be psychologists out there who have something to say about that.  I think I don't want to know....

5.  Like Karina Halle on Facebook.  Like Teresa Ragan on Facebook.  Observe and compare.
Both of these women write compelling thrillers.  Halle's are more supernatural (at least her earlier self-pub'd series was), while Ragan writes thriller detective tales in addition to her earlier works of romance.  Both of these authors are on twitter (Ragan, Halle), but they are more accessible and active through Facebook--unlike me.  I only dream of inspiring the kind of Facebook engagement these authors command.  I'm watching and learning.

6.  Friday Night Writes on twitter
This is wonderful!  It's like a mini-NaNo with better engagement and a very real chance of meeting other writers from more than one country.  I don't often get to do this, since Friday night is usually family time at my house, but when I can, I'm so there!  If one of your writing blocks happens on a Friday, you ought to follow them and be inspired.

7.  CAMP NaNoWriMo and, yes, NaNoWriMo, really work.
I had my doubts.  A novel in a month?  Say what?  How could you possibly produce anything quality in that time?
Last summer I decided to get over myself.  I did not have a project ready to go from start-to-finish, but I soon learned that's not required.  You can finish a work that's stumping you (what I did in July), or revise a work, or whatever else is on your author's chore list of things you know you need to do, want to do, but just can't seem to do.  On my second go (November), I actually transcribed the first novel I ever wrote.  I'd been putting that chore off for years.  Of course, I could have just scanned it in, but transcribing was better.  Here's why: I edited while typing since my 20-something writing was BAD.  AND since I really got to know the manuscript again, I'm thinking about how to rework it into something I will want to have out there.  It's great to get that done!

8.  Subscribe to Poet's and Writer's Magazine.
This is a great magazine.  So far, it's my favorite for writers.  And their list of retreats and contests is like nothing I've seen anywhere else.  Here's what's really amazing about these folks.  You don't have to give them any money to use their wonderful lists!  Check it out.  And if that alone doesn't make you want to subscribe, the articles and appealing visual design will.

9.  Check out The Indie View, a list of bookbloggers.
I like to write book reviews.  Sometimes I review indie books, but I'm not what's called a "book blogger."  Those folks command my respect.  Sometimes I review a book when asked, and someday I will do more of that, I hope, but at the moment I'm just too preoccupied getting my own fiction out to develop that aspect of the blog.
Having said that, I've been at a bit of a loss with how to help indie authors who write to me wanting a review.  It's not that I don't want to read and review them; I'm utterly flattered by the offer of a free book.  But if I'm honest with them, I have to admit that if it's not gothic lit or magic realism I most likely won't get to it.  And, even if it does fit in those genres, my reading list is so long, it might take me a lifetime.
And then there's my writing.
So, here's my answer to all those other indie authors who need reviews and who I would very much like to help: query the bloggers on this list.  If you do it properly, you WILL get reviews.  I don't know how many, but it will happen.  Also, in the process you will learn a lot about how to talk about your book to prospective readers and how to make industry contacts in an effective way.

10.  Anything Stephen King has to say about writing in the last few years.  I don't know how I went 40 years of my life without reading On Writing.  Don't let it happen to you.  And now...he's on twitter!

And here's a bonus tip I use whenever my writing feels sluggish: pull up the "Make Good Art" Neil Gaiman speech and run it at least once a day.  You can subscribe to my YouTube channel if you're really lazy.  Hey, I'm here to help ;)

Happy Writing!  Happy Reading!  They'll both make you happier while living.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

January Book Reviews, Part Two by Christine Locke

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K.Rowling
It's the first, and it's almost the best.

It's not the best because the last one is the best and will always hold a special place on my mental "favorite books" shelf.
Having said that, I reread this novel because my eight-year-old is reading the books this year.  I did not suggest it; I thought he might be a little young.  But my teen daughter suggested it and even loaned the little guy her prized volumes.  Off he has gone to Hogwarts with Harry.
Here's what strikes me on my most recent reading: this book manages the most perfect balance between compelling plot pacing and intricate, engaging fantasy detail.  Hagrid shows up and we're like, "Whoa!" but then he fiddles with a fussy umbrella and Dudley gets a could you ever stop reading?  I never get lost in the intricacies of Quidditch or grossed out by details that don't seem to make sense (fingernails on a tray in Knockturn Alley in book two...huh?); in fact, I get why my young son read this book in less than a week (he's at about a month on Chamber of Secrets).  Even though I already know what happens, I didn't want to put it down.  And I won't get sidetracked by the fingernails or overwhelmed by the sporting rules when I get to them later in the series because I'm already hooked.  In The Sorcerer's Stone, I fell in love with Harry all over again--after all this time, and for always.

Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen
A Very Dark Book?  Hmm.  Not at all.

I read this book on New Year's Eve while I had the flu, and it not only held my attention, but it made me feel better.
I read somewhere that after Allen wrote this book, she thought she had a very dark story on her hands.  Hmm.  This is not a dark book.  It's a beautiful one, a magical realism example, but not in the same way as Jason Mott's The Returned.  Garden Spells is more of a crossover between supernatural and magical realism.  Actually, this book reminds me a lot of the movie version of "Practical Magic."  And, if you've ever peeked at my blog on gothic stuff, Meanwhile Back at the Mansion, you know that consider that a good thing.  A very good thing.
There are two sisters, one more of a homebody and one an adventurer with consequences chasing her back home.  The sisters will have to learn to love each other and learn to love and trust others, as well, but there's a unique twist to Garden Spells that I enjoyed, and that's in the nature of their home's magic.  The sisters own a magic tree that inhabits the space of a character in this novel, not unlike the mansion central to a gothic story.
But despite the struggle to love and the troubles haunting these sisters, the novel is not dark at all.  I almost would not have minded if Allen would have lingered in the sisters' dark spaces a little longer, but her descriptions of how these  women find their way from darkness into the light of love makes for a beautiful tale.  If you haven't read it yet and you wish you could watch "Practical Magic" again for the first time, you will enjoy Garden Spells.  I did, and I plan to read another book by Allen.

The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunionby Fannie Flagg
Rolicking fun with crisis at its heart, as usual.

Remember last week when I told you that Jason Mott's The Returned should have had more laughs, not despite the seriousness of the subject, but because of it?  Flagg's Southern writing is a great example of what I meant by that.  Her characters feel loss with undeniable authenticity, and yet they always laugh, often at their very experience of grief, the laughter that comes through tears.
I love the historical fiction aspect of this book.  I told my husband about the women army pilots of WWII (who were not formally recognized as members of the American Army at the time), and he was amazed that he had never heard of them.  I had had the same reaction, and I'm so glad Flagg worked this significant piece of our history into such an achingly beautiful tale.
I've always been fond of Flagg's propensity to write about what happens when we must face newly-discovered information about ourselves, who we thought we were being redefined by who we now know ourselves to be (the relevant question being, of course, what is it, really, to know yourself?).  Sookie's character drove me crazy at first as Type B characters sometimes do, but as the story unfolds the reader comes to understand her seemingly nonsensical behavior.  In fact, in the end, all the oddities of Sookie's personality come together in a way that's perfectly sensible after all.
That might be my only gripe with the story, other than that the read was too fast--as always with Flagg, I think she could have written a much longer book and kept me just as spellbound.  The wrap-up is a little too neat, Sookie just a little too...I don't know, perfect, in the end.  I thought she ought to be a lot more pissed off.  But, then, that might be the difference between Sookie's personality and mine irritating me again.
It's a fun book containing important historical information about American women in World War II that you might not have ever heard.  Give The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion a read; you won't regret it.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

January Book Reviews, Part One by Christine Locke

I'm having a great month for reading, and I hope all of you are, too.  Here are a few of my favorites from Dec-Jan.  I'll have more for you soon.

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
Between Mr. King's most recent works and On Writing, I think I'm a fangirl.

This book is really scary.  The idea for the big bads is one of the most terrifying things I've ever encountered in a horror story, partly because it hides behind something so benign.  I mean, who wouldn't trust a grandparent-ly person in an expensive RV?  The baddies of Doctor Sleep are super well-done.
I also like the younger, newer version of The Shining's Danny.  The story requires another intuitive child.  Danny is grown up now, and the RV dwelling vampires like the "special" children best.  Enter Abra Stone.  She has a particularly fascinating poet-grandmother who is a delight, not just to the reader but also, eventually, for Dan.  In King's stories, I often find that it's the supporting characters who stick with me and say things I remember for years even if I don't quite remember their names.  In Doctor Sleep, Abra's grandmother is one of those hauntingly well-described but not central figures.
Of course, it's Dan that this story lives to serve.  You hear about what happens to him and his mother and his mentor after their escape from the Overlook Hotel.  But you also see what it might be like to live from childhood to middle age as Dan: not too fun.  He's recovering from all types of wounds, but when we catch up to him he's actually doing pretty well.  He has a support system that is working for him and a doctor friend (another one of those supporting characters who feels so real he might have checked your kid's ears one time...) who understands him and helps him when he needs it most.  Dan is not perfect and he does not always know what to do, but King makes the peace Dan seeks possible for him to find--even peace with the horrific memories of his abusive father.
I love the way King writes about his own--my parents'--generation.  Sometimes I think he's too hard on them (the descriptions of American RV life get a little harsh, geez), but he also captures the idealism that has been their best trait all along.  Criticizing Baby Boomers for not living up to their own impossible ideals is not that realistic, after all--but it's true to form since King is one of them.  He's honest about his generation's failings, not making excuses, and that's refreshing at this particular moment in time.
I liked the book, but I loved the ending.  I'm not going to spoil it for you, but much like my review last summer of Joyland, all I can say here is that King has become a writer who gives you hope in the midst of life's haunting chaos.  Who knew?  And there's no smultz to it.  It's not tacky or churchy.  It's the kind of peace we hope to make, the kind we see is possible in our finer, more honest moments.  The heart of a man may be stonier, but as it turns out, the roots of the most hardy and determined love are not deterred by rough terrain.

The Returned, by Jason Mott
C'mon people, what's the first rule of magic realism?

I've lived in the South since I was twelve, but I'm not a native.  I sometimes had the impression that Mott might have a background something like mine.  He lives in North Carolina, the bio says, so it's possible.  Sometimes the descriptions of Southern life are very good, sometimes not quite true.  For example, I can't see a small town Southern church lady showing up to save the day with her husband's gun unless bears or bobcats are involved.  To do what needs to be done, most of the small town Southern church ladies I've had the pleasure of knowing would not need bullets.  (If you need a little help to picture what I mean, recall Sally Fields in "Steel Magnolias," and run with that image.  Her husband might need a gun and enjoy playing with one, but not her.  She inspires tenderness or strikes terror with her presence alone.)  I think the scene would have been more powerful without the gun, especially since she has a huge crowd of unarmed Returned backing her up.  And there should be more wry humor in a Southern tale.  As my husband always says, Southerners laugh in funeral homes and hospitals.  There should be more laughter in this story, and the memory of elementary-school jokes just doesn't quite cut it.
That's enough criticism, for the truth is that I loved this novel.
Mott writes about an extraordinary situation that gives the reader and all the characters a chance to explore a condition not bound by region or time: loss and grief and the aftermath of death.  So by the time gunfire erupts in this plot, criticizing it for regional realism becomes petty.  And speaking of petty criticisms...
It bothers me that so many of the reviewers of this novel do not understand magic realism, which I must say I think Mott handles beautifully.  One of the biggest challenges of the magically realistic story is to tell it without ever spelling out exactly why the magic happens.  You can come close.  You can even know, and as the storyteller you probably should.  BUT YOU CAN'T EXPLAIN THE MAGIC.  It's the first rule of the genre.  Mott cannot tell you why the dead return.  He cannot tell you because his characters do not know, and you have to live side-by-side with his characters and do the best you can to understand while they do the best they can to live with what has occurred.
So saying that there's a big hole in the middle of Mott's tale because the magic remains magical is not a valid critique.  More to the point, do the characters feel real?  Do you relate to their struggle?  Have you ever felt like this? (Because so much of "real" life feels like it couldn't happen for real--that's why we tell stories with magic, right?  That's why we love to read them, isn't it?)
This is what I thought Mott did best.  By the story's conclusion, I was right there with our church lady and her husband whose willingness to do what he felt was right even if his reason was different from his wife's saves him from ending up in the same place as his narrow-minded neighbors whose bitterness rules every choice.  The losses suffered evoke the pain of the reader's own losses, I thought very well.  And, beyond that, the characters here point the way to some better responses, some choices beyond denial and repression.
It's a beautiful story.  And, as is supposed to be the case with magic realism, the magic doesn't matter in the end.  Not one bit.  As in life, it's the response, not the catalyst, that tells us who we are.  Read The Returned with an open heart, and you'll see what I mean.

Bellman & Black, by Dianne Setterfield
Better than The Thirteenth Tale

Call me crazy--and from the looks of other reviews some readers definitely will--but if I had to choose between the two for the finer work, I'd pick Bellman & Black.
This story of one man's life is epic in nature (aspiring to convey the entire arc of the man's existence, every relevant detail from youth to decline), yet concise enough to be a page-turner.
And how often do you encounter a compelling story that also engages in language beautiful enough to be poetry?
I read The Thirteen Tale years ago, so maybe my expectations that Setterfield would repeat her first literary performance were dimmed with the distance of time.  I was NOT disappointed in this novel.  Far from it.
Yet I am a bit baffled as to why it was first subtitled, "A Ghost Story."  This subtitle does not appear on my dust jacket, and I suggest that it be removed from the book's title on Goodreads.  The subtitle was a mistake.  It's not that the book is NOT a ghost story.   Sure it is.  The problem is, rather, that it leads the reader to make assumptions about what the novel will be about.  It's more complicated than a ghost story.  It's more like Bellman and Black MIGHT be a ghost story...and in the end it won't really matter to you.
This is a novel about nothing less than what it is to live and to die, to have and to lose, and what is gained along the way.  If your literary tastes are anything like mine, the language alone will keep you engaged and haunt you for weeks after you've devoured the last page.