Category Archives: on writing

Laura Lippman — Wilde Lake

I don’t usually review a book I don’t like, but this is an exception. I want to talk about the writing style, which is a big part of the reason the book didn’t grab me. I don’t finish most books unless they hold my attention to the end and don’t feel I should review them without finishing. For some reason, I finished this one. I kept expecting it to get better.

Lu (Louisa Brant, state’s attorney for Howard County Maryland) is the narrator. She is not a likeable protagonist. She is all about winning—beating her boss out of his job, doing better at everything than her brother, winning the murder case she’s trying, etc. She has two children, twins, that we never meet. There is a housekeeper/nanny that Lu doesn’t like. Her brother and father could be interesting characters, but we don’t get to know them.

A big distraction was the author’s use of switching from first person to third person and back with the same narrator. The book even uses a different font when switching from first to third person chapters. I noticed this diversion right away, because I format books for self-published authors. Lippman uses third person present for current happenings and first person to tell us about past events. There is little or no connection between these chapters until close to the end of the book.

This is a murder mystery where we know the killer early but not his motive. It’s more about Lu trying to make her case for court than about the mystery. The story drags and is full of gimmicks. There is even an affair between Lu and one of her brother’s married friends which has nothing to do with the story.

This is a dark novel. Dark stories can keep my interest, but not this one. It lacks a good plot, interesting characters, and a satisfying ending. I read Wilde Lake right after Lippman’s Sunburn, which I enjoyed. You wouldn’t know they are by the same author.

Stephen King — On Writing

Without electricity after Hurricane Irma, I read the two library books I had in two days. The library wasn’t open so I perused my shelves for books to read. I went through a few books I hadn’t read, some I’d bought from authors and some people had given to me. One that I read many years ago and remembered liking was Stephen King’s On Writing. I may have gotten more out of it this time around.

The book is a combination of memoir and advice about writing. The first section, “C.V.,” is a condensed life story as it relates to being a writer—an interesting story in itself. The second section, “On Writing,” is all about the art and craft. He starts by giving us the Great Commandment, “read a lot, write a lot.”

King lists four levels of writers—bad writers, competent writers, good writers, and geniuses—and believes there is no way to make a competent writer from a bad one or to turn a good writer into a great one, but a competent writer can become a good writer. This requires a toolbox: the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, and elements of style) and a second level (hard work, dedication, and timely help). He also emphasizes rewriting and editing. Two of his rules:  “Omit needless words” and “2nd draft = 1st Draft – 10%.”

You’ve probably heard of the two types of writers—“plotters” who plan their books in advance and “pantsters” who write by the seat of their pants. Stephen King is the later and so am I. He claims he never plots a book. I like King’s ideas about writing is that they coincide with my own. And what he produces is very good storytelling.

The third section of the book, “On Living,” is back to memoir. He talks about his accident (he was hit by a car), recovery, and return to writing. This is followed by “And Further More, Part I and Part II.” Part I is about editing and Part II is a book list. And I forgot to mention the three forwards in the beginning of the book.

I enjoyed the first reading and again the second time around.

Publish Your Book With CreateSpace

Are you a writer? Want to see your book in print without spending years trying to find a publisher or carrying hundreds of books in inventory? I gave a presentation August 19, 2017 at Gulf Coast Writers Association (GCWA) on how to get your book published via CreateSpace. It takes you through the steps required to plan, submit, and bring your book to life. And the best part? You can publish your book for little to no money.

Handouts from the presentation — the PowerPoint slide show and a list of links to more information — can be found here.

Writing Fiction — Premise

buildingabetterargument

…writing a story without a premise is like rowing a boat without oars.
 ~ James N. Frey, from How to Write a Damn Good Novel

I’ll admit up front that I have problems defining premise. So I Googled it and found differing definitions. I’m still not certain of what a premise should be. I know when writing research papers you need a premise. You are trying to prove something and your paper is the argument to prove your premise. In writing stories, maybe the same holds true.

Several websites and references appear to define premise the same as a “log line” or “tag line.” Others are quite different. Frey, who started me down this path while I was rereading his book purchased almost thirty years ago, defines it as something that leads to something—as simple as love leads to happiness or crime leads to punishment. Or it could be crime leads to happiness if that’s what you want your story to say.

The tag line for my novel, The Janus Code, was, “What if the ultimate computer firewall turned out to be the ultimate computer snooper?” By some of the following definitions, this would be the premise. By others, including Frey’s, it would not. It would need to be something that leads to something—cause and effect. Maybe my story’s premise is, “Releasing the ultimate computer snooper leads to world-wide disaster.” I’m not sure.

I didn’t take the following references’ advice (hadn’t read them at the time). They all say you should have a premise before you begin writing your story. (I think one reference said many authors don’t consciously do that, but if it’s a good story, the premise is there.)

If you want the scoop on premise, read from some of the following links. There is a wealth of information, but the writers don’t always agree on the definition of premise.

  • Merriam-Webster:
    a : a proposition antecedently supposed or proved as a basis of argument or inference; specifically :  either of the first two propositions of a syllogism from which the conclusion is drawn
    b :  something assumed or taken for granted :  presupposition
  • The Scribes website makes premise sound like the blurb you put on the back cover of your book.
  • Writers’ Digest confused me with concept and premise. What they call concept, others call premise. At the end of this article, they compare Concept vs. Idea vs. Premise vs. Theme.
  • James N. Frey defines premise more closely to what Writers’ Digest calls concept or theme. You won’t find this on his website; you’ll need to read the book, How to Write a Damn Good Novel. He says, “The premise of a story is simply a statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the core conflict of the story.”
  • On the website Taking Notes, Jeanne Vincent talks about theme and premise. She gives many examples of theme but basically uses Frey’s definition of premise.
  • Hollywood Inkslinger, Andrew Oye, says,Premise and Theme Are Cousins Not Twins.” He says the premise is the subject of the story and the theme is the meaning from the story. He compares the premise to a “log line.” Even though he’s talking about screen writing, what he says applies to books as well.
  • The Writer’s Store talks about themes, but says true theme is premise. Melanie Ann Phillips says, “A premise is a moral statement about the value of our troubles caused by an element of human character.”
  • The Writer online magazine talks about premise in a way I think of as “tag line” or “log line.”
    “A story premise, along with its tool, the premise line, is a container that holds the essence of your story’s right, true and natural structure.”
  • Where’s the Drama, another screenwriting website, has two separate articles on the same webpage —the first is on Log Lines and the second on Premise. Their definition of premise: “A premise is something to be proved, something asserted as true…”

If you read some of these, you will see why I’m confused about the definition of PREMISE.

Writing Fiction — Creating Characters

Two things prompted me to write this post. Gulf Coast Writer’s Association (GCWA) is a large organization of writers based in Fort Myers, Florida, which offers speakers, workshops, critique groups, and lots of networking with other writers and people associated with writing. They have been my lifeline to writing since I moved to Florida. The July meeting featured a workshop on creating characters.

The second item that prompted me to write about characters is a book that I purchased and read nearly thirty years ago—How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey. I plucked this book off my shelf one recent night when I ran out of novels for my nightly bedtime reading. It’s as pertinent to fiction writing today as when I first read it. The first chapter is all about characters.

If I can’t get into the head and heart of the protagonist in a novel, I probably won’t finish the book. The story is even better if all the main characters (even the antagonist) are three dimensional. I want to understand where they are coming from. The same goes for writing. I need to get into the head of the character—become the character.

My first attempt at a novel (not published) was written from my point of view. I started by fictionalizing some past events in my life. But the character took over and told a completely different story with events that never happened to me and that I never imagined would. She became a different person than the author, with her own distinct personality.

The idea for my first published novel, The Janus Code, came from wanting to understand a man that I knew. He was a complex personality (bipolar) and I wanted to get inside his head. I started writing without any idea of the story, the plot, the premise, other characters… I let him write the story. Of course, he became a completely different person than the real person about whom I started writing.

With my second published book, Mangrove Madness, (I’d written a few in between) I started with an imaginary character not based upon any particular person. I did have a good sense of her personality. With this story I had a basic idea of a plot, but didn’t know the ending. Again, the character took over the writing and told the story. She decided the plot, the twists and turns, and the ending.

After Mangrove Madness, several people asked if I was writing a sequel. I decided to try, so first I wrote a biography of Ernie Pratt and character sketches of a few other players in the book. I found that I knew them quite well, even though they didn’t exist before I wrote the book.

I know that some writers create their characters in detail before they begin writing a story. Maybe it’s because of the way I write (in the zone) that allows my characters to create themselves. I’m not sure I understand it, but this is how it works for me.

Literary vs. Mainstream Fiction

I have a problem distinguishing between literary and mainstream fiction. And sometimes genre fiction seems to overlap into those categories. I spent some time poking around the Internet trying to find distinctions or definitions of the two and it only confused me more. The general consensus seems to be that literary fiction is more about style of writing that about plot, while mainstream is plot driven. I found that many believe that a crossover exists between mainstream and literary (and even genre). One suggested that literary was for the “elite” reader. Janet Paszkowski on absolutewrite.com tells a writing professor described non-literary fiction as “artless.”

Some of the interesting articles I read:

I claim I don’t enjoy most literary novels, but I have found several books that are classed as literary that I liked. I’ve reviewed some here on my blog; check the literary category. Some of them may be classified as “Women’s Fiction” rather than literary. Is that another crossover?

What sent me to the Internet to define literary vs. mainstream is a book I read recently (The Devil You Know by Elisabeth de Mariaffi) with a blurb on the front cover saying, “A gripping literary thriller….” To me this is an oxymoron. Thriller to me is definitely genre. The book was good and very plot driven, with good characterization. I would probably call it genre/thriller. Possibly mainstream since the writing didn’t exactly follow the rules for the genre. The one thing I see that probably classifies it as literary is the lack of quotation marks. This style of writing drives me crazy. Literary or not, I don’t see the purpose of eliminating quotes except to make a book more difficult to read.

The next book in my pile (All that Followed by Gabriel Urza) turned out to be literary in my mind. It is a twisted tale set in the Basque Country of northern Spain with three main characters POV: an American expat teacher, a young man almost accidentally involved in revolutionary activity, and the wife of an upcoming politician. Great reading! (He didn’t eliminate the quotation marks.)

I still don’t know the answer on how to define literary vs. mainstream. I think the definitions change with time and with the person defining.

Characters — Part II

I’ve read a lot of novels lately and I’m getting behind in blogging about them. The best ones for me all have one thing in common — good characterization.

From Wikipedia:

There are two ways an author can convey information about a character:

Direct or explicit characterization

The author literally tells the audience what a character is like. This may be done via the narrator, another character or by the character themselves.

Indirect or implicit characterization

The audience must infer for themselves what the character is like through the character’s thoughts, actions, speech (choice of words, way of talking), physical appearance, mannerisms and interaction with other characters, including other characters’ reactions to that particular person.

For me, direct characterization doesn’t cut it. I like to be in the characters head. Show, don’t tell.

Some of those books I’ve read recently: Lies That Bind, by Maggie Barbieri; Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson; Bittersweet by Susan Wittig Albert; Cuba Straights by Randy Wayne White; and there were more. There is one in my pile of books to go back to the library that I didn’t finish: Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald.

The characters in each of these books were probably the main reason I kept reading and enjoyed the stories, or not. In Lies that Bind, there were many things I didn’t like about the protagonist Maude Conlon. But she was interesting and likable even though she had a bad temper, sometimes treated her daughters badly. She kept secrets but didn’t like others keeping secrets from her. The story had a good plot; Mauve looking for a sister she didn’t know existed until her father died. I would like to read other novels by Maggie Barbieri.

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite SF authors. He writes epic novels that are more about science than characters. But Aurora had a unique main character. (There were two, maybe more protagonists.) This unusual character is the starship’s quantum computer. We meet him/her/them (the computer calls itself we for a long period of time) as a child being taught to think in human terms by the ship’s chief engineer, Devi. By the end of the story he has a very distinct personality, even a sense of humor. The other main character is Devi’s daughter, Freya, who (like all the others currently on the spaceship) was born in space. The plot is good. What do you do when you arrive at your destination and the planet you are supposed to live on is poisonous to humans? The science goes way beyond what I understand but didn’t bore me.

Bittersweet: A China Bayles Mystery by Susan Wittig Albert is part of a long series. In this book China Bayles, a police detective, is out of her territory visiting her mother when she becomes involved in two murders, plus game theft and smuggling. The characters are interesting and real, including her game warden friend Mack Chambers. The plot is good and the settings are wonderful. It makes me want to visit central Texas, a place I never before had a desire to see.

In my opinion Cuba Straights, Randy Wayne White’s latest Doc Ford novel, is not his best. The settings kept my interest (Cuba and Florida history included), but the plot was somewhat disjointed. I felt that Doc Ford has devolved into a typical macho male, his friend Tomlinson, who used to be interesting, has turning into a drugged-out freak show, and some of the other characters are two dimensional. I probably won’t read the next one. White has lost touch with his characters.

I don’t usually give bad reviews here, but here is a second one to go with the one above. Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald drove me crazy and I couldn’t finish it. Her main character is apparently ADHD. Off the wall, bouncing around, can’t complete anything, not even the email she is trying to write. Maybe it gets better but I couldn’t follow the story and quit after a couple of chapters. Could the author be like that? In this case the character is what kept me from reading this book.

The Unreliable Narrator

Definition: An unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised.
The term was coined in 1961 by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction.

The term unreliable narrator came to my attention recently when I was reading reviews of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. I turns out that the novel has three first-person unreliable narrators. Rachel (the girl on the train) imagines the lives of people she is watching from the train window every day. She is an alcoholic who suffers blackouts. She fills the blanks with what other people tell her, in particular, her ex-husband, Tom. Megan is a woman she has been watching. Rachel has invented a perfect life for her. Megan has a terrible past that she hides from the world, her husband, and even at times from herself. Anna is married to Tom and pretends their life is wonderful if Rachel would just stay out of their lives. Tom, who is not a narrator, lies to everyone.

Megan disappears and Rachel involves herself in the investigation to find out what happened to the perfect woman she has created in her mind. The plot is complex and we are led down many wrong paths through the unreliable narrators.

The next novel I read, The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney (British), also had two first-person narrators. (I happen to prefer first-person POV.) I read somewhere that any first-person point of view in a novel is likely an unreliable narrator. Keeping this in mind, I looked at the story in a slightly different way. Ray, the main character, is a half-Gypsy private investigator looking for woman who has been missing for eight years. JJ is a teenager living with family in the Gypsy site from which the woman disappeared. Ray is looking into a way of life he doesn’t truly understand and hearing different versions of the story of when and how the woman disappeared. JJ is only getting bits and pieces, excluded from conversations because he is a child. He uses his wild imagination to fill in the blanks. So, both Ray and JJ are unreliable narrators.

Next I read In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen. This novel is written in third person (sometimes second person) with multiple narrators. It is a complex story of intertwining lives. Each character has a different perspective on the same events. So I found that even though this story isn’t told in first person, it is told by unreliable narrators. Maybe every story has them in order to keep the plot interesting.

All three of the above mentioned novels are intriguing reads.

I believe my first novel, The Janus Code by J.C. Ferguson, has an unreliable narrator. It is written with a one third-person POV. I haven’t given much thought to the reliability of Ernie Pratt (first person, one narrator) in Mangrove Madness, my second novel. But maybe I will keep it in mind as I work on the sequel.

On Writing and Selling Books.

I love to write a new story. I don’t even mind going back and editing a few times or formatting and designing covers for publishing. I even do that for other people. But I don’t like marketing. I like doing a website or two (another thing I do for other authors), sending out a few emails, doing book signings here and there, but I don’t like selling myself and my writing.

The book I just published in June, Mangrove Madness, has been hanging around for years waiting on an agent and a couple of publishers to make up their minds about publishing. It might have gone through if I was better at selling. But instead, I got tired of waiting for something to happen, took it back, and published it myself.

It’s a mystery to me what sells a book to a major publisher or what makes it into a bestselling novel. I just finished reading (or partially finished) a book by a New York Times bestselling author. Within the first few chapters I had figured out who committed the murder the female PI was investigating. Plus, I knew she was going to lose her boyfriend because she was being so stupid and not listening to what he was saying. I checked the end of the book to see that I was right then put the book aside. How and why does something like that sell?

I know people who write much better novels who are self-publishing and selling very little. But the business of writing and the business of marketing are two very separate things. Most of my friends who write are not expert marketers. A few can do both. I guess I need to learn marketing or hire someone who is good at it.

Wish me luck with marketing my new book.

Bragging Rights

FAPA-GoldI don’t usually post about myself and my writing, but I won an award. The Janus Code by J.C. Ferguson (that’s me, Judy Loose) is the winner of the Florida Authors & Publishers Association 2014 President’s Award Gold Medal for Adult Fiction: Action/Suspense. It’s exciting to win a prestigious award—first place. Wow! It’s probably silly to be so pleased, but it does feel good to have professional writers and publishers approve of my work.

This is also a credit to the Gulf Coast Writers Association. They have three winners this year. In addition to my award, Alice Oldford won a gold medal in the Home and Garden category for her book, Recipes and Life and Patti Brassard Jefferson won a silver medal in the Children’s Picture Book category for Stu’s Big Party.

Thanks for listening to me sound off.