Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

Chris Grabenstein, a sure voice at the shore

Monday, August 25th, 2014
Chris Grabenstein, a sure voice at the shore

What makes Chris Grabenstein’s Down the Shore novels so entertaining? I think it’s the voice he chooses to tell the stories.

Iraq war veteran John Ceepak is a police officer in the town of Sea Haven, New Jersey. With a code of ethics as strong as a gun barrel, he’s clearly the hero. But Grabenstein chooses to filter the fluff and drama of beach life through the eyes of 24-year-old Danny Boyle. A part-time police officer who likes to impress his friends, Doyle plays the role of the post-adolescent, alternating between irreverent and respectful, hopeless and hip.

With a quick eye for contrast, Danny becomes the perfect filter for all that is crass and criminal during summer at the Jersey Shore. He’s Watson, Hastings and Natalie Teeger rolled into one. Ceepak forms the strong moral core of the books, but it is Danny’s voice that resonates long after the saltwater taffy is gone.

What do you think? Is the hero the best narrator for mystery and suspense novels or the sidekick?

For Margaret Coel, the perfect view

Monday, August 18th, 2014
For Margaret Coel, the perfect view

I don’t usually appreciate head-hopping in novels. The author gains a global perspective but sometimes sacrifices intimacy and suspense—when we see everything in real time, the heroine’s discoveries don’t always land with the same impact.

Unless the author is Margaret Coel. In The Perfect Suspect, the author makes a good case for the technique, employing it to craft a book with perfect pace. Using duel points of view, that of the killer and the investigator, she lights the candle at both ends . . . and we’re happy to watch it burn.

The plot involves the murder of a candidate for governor in Colorado. The point of view shifts from the killer, a female police detective by the name of Ryan Beckman, to a journalist, Catherine McLeod, as each races to track the other. By alternating POV, Coel not only illuminates their motives but sets the two on a course that can’t help but result in a collision. It’s a heady rush to a satisfying end.

What do you think? When you read or write fiction, are two heads better than one?

V is for verb

Monday, June 23rd, 2014
V is for verb

The leader declared war on passive verbs.

Noreen Wald, aka Nora Charles, author of the Ghostwriter and Kate Kennedy series, vowed to stamp out all forms of the verb to be. Her fervor had inspired the Wednesday Critique Group, an offshoot of Noreen’s class in writing fiction, to the point that its members adopted a vigilance Paul Revere would envy. As we read our work aloud, we’d slash and burn to invigorate our prose.

Now an obsession with active verbs can deliver a crisp manuscript, or drive a writer nuts. Active verbs speed the story but call attention to the writing, and sometimes pull the reader out of the scene. Passive verbs put those readers to sleep. With all due respect to our instructor, what we need is balance.

It’s not always possible to find alternatives to the word is. Sometimes sentences sound less pretentious with passive verbs, and sometimes they have a better flow. The question is (and I use that word advisedly), when do we permit passive verbs and when do we pop for active language?

Does the answer require a mechanistic approach—as a former president once said, does it depend on what the definition of is is?—or does the choice grow from the writer’s intent, which changes from sentence to genre to type?

In P is for Peril, Sue Grafton’s character Kinsey Millhone hears a woman calling to a dog. “She emitted a piercing whistle, and a young German shepherd came bounding over the hill, heading in my direction at full speed. I waited, bracing myself for the force of muddy feet, but at the last possible second, the whistle came again and the dog sprinted off.”

The passage ripples with tension as Grafton propels the prose with active verbs.

In Edwin of the Iron Shoes, Marcia Muller tackles a less straightforward task. She needs to convey supposition as well as continuing action. Leaving the scene of a murder, Muller’s character Sharon McCone wants to rejoin her employer. “The ambulance had pulled away and the crowd was dispersing. Across the street, a light burned in the front windows of Junk Emporium. Hank was probably waiting for me. . . .”

And we burn to read more of the story.

In Laura Lippman’s Baltimore Blues, Tess Monaghan writes the equivalent of her New Year’s resolutions in a student composition book. Keeping those resolutions has proven a challenge, so Lippman conveys the character’s frustration and resignation through a mix of active and passive language: “Tess slapped the notebook closed, filed it on a shelf with twenty-two others—all blank except for the first page—set her alarm, and was asleep in five minutes.”

Like Grafton and Muller, she uses language that embodies emotion as well as information. Had she stuck with passive verbs, we’d have nodded off in ten.

One more example and I’ll let you go. In To Darkness and to Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming conveys both action and reflection as one of her characters, the Rev. Clare Fergusson, searches for a missing woman: “Clare forced herself to keep her steps even, her head moving methodically as she climbed up the increasingly steep slope. She was, she had to admit, too impatient to be a naturally good searcher.”

As we are, too often, with passive construction.

So, do we need an iron rule about banishing passive verbs forever? Or can we allow the function and emotion of the scene to drive the choice?

Readers get face time with authors

Monday, March 7th, 2011
Readers get face time with authors

Simon & Schuster Digital has created a site where authors can respond to reader questions through webcam videos. Called Ask the Author, the site gives readers a direct way of interacting with writers.

As of March 7 the website listed 10 authors who are willing to talk with fans. They range from Brad Thor, author of The Athena Project, to Lisa McMann, author of Cryer’s Cross; Goodnight, Tweetheart‘s Teresa Medeiros, and music and sports author Chuck Klosterman.

Here’s how it works. Visitors click on the “talk to” button below an author’s photo and type their question. Then they check back for a response. No word from S&S on whether the system will offer live chat at a future date.

Writers with their own websites might consider doing the same in real time.

Ask The Author

The new Face(book) of marketing

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011
The new Face(book) of marketing

If you’re a creative who wants to market your work, comScore knows where to find your audience. They’re on Facebook.

Social media continues to attract more viewers and advertisers, according to comScore’s report “The 2010 U.S. Digital Year in Review.” Nine out of every 10 U.S. Internet users visits a social networking site every month, accounting for 12% of all time spent online in 2010, the digital measurement firm reports in the whitepaper. Facebook leads the pack of sites that receive that traffic with nearly 154 million unique visitors last year.

Advertisers have followed, serving up 4.9 trillion display ads, an increase of 23% over 2009. Social networking publishers delivered 34% of those ads, up 11% over the previous year.

Creatives interested in marketing their work on a shoestring might want to follow the trend. As they say on Wall Street, don’t fight the tape.

comScore SM usage graph TBB

A heartbreaking life of staggering generosity

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010
A heartbreaking life of staggering generosity

An eerie thing happened on September 14, 1982. I received a letter from John Gardner that morning about a pack of short stories I’d left with him to critique, at his suggestion, even though I wasn’t one of his students. Later that day, as I sat on the rim of the copydesk, the city editor swiveled in his chair and, pointing to the computer, said, “Look at this.”

It was an AP story reporting that the novelist had died in a motorcycle accident on his way home that day. He was forty-nine. The story sounded like something from his latest novel.

Gardner was well-known in and out of literary circles for his outsized characters and their philosophical rants. Some of his books, like October Light, made the bestseller lists. A few months before his death the New York Times led its book review section with commentary on his last novel, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, a work I had just finished reading.

John Gardner explainsI’d met him earlier in the year in a class at a local university. The professor had invited Gardner to talk about fiction and, as a bonus, he’d read and commented on the first page of our latest submissions. He had a shock of white hair that flowed over his forehead and small, wrinkled eyes. His pipe kept going out as he talked. Later the professor invited some of us to his apartment to continue the discussion. Sitting on the floor, our backs to the tiled fireplace, we listened as Gardner talked about his work.

Some of the discussion was funny. “Why did you sell the short story on Julius Caesar to Playboy?” “Because they offered the most money.” Other parts were more serious. Gardner didn’t give a toss about genres; he didn’t care whether people considered his work popular or literary, thoughtful or entertaining. He wanted to be known as a storyteller. He constantly courted the ancient arts, rewriting epic tales like Beowulf from the monster’s point of view. (Years later, Hollywood would turn his novel Grendel into a movie, the closest to populism the author ever got.)

John Gardner typewriterEmerging from the dream
For emerging writers Gardner is best known for his view that fiction should remain a “vivid and continuous dream” in the mind of the reader, uninterrupted by extraneous detail. Yet his books were crammed with characters philosophizing about life. He seemed obsessed with philosophy and argued constantly against nihilism, a doctrine that nothing is knowable, that rejects all distinctions of moral value. In his work of criticism, On Moral Fiction, he called for books with “just and compassionate behavior,” art that “establishes models of human action.” He may have identified deeply with Grendel, the monster who finds himself cast out of heaven because he’s ugly, comes from a bad family and asks too many questions.

While his characters were not always models of behavior, Gardner was a kind and generous man, lending his time and name to aspiring writings. I met him that May in class and shared an evening with friends, but I wasn’t his student. Yet he invited me to his home in Susquehanna to discuss and critique my work.

I arrived on a fine spring day to find the novelist in a farmhouse on the edge of town, nestled in the hills the locals call the Endless Mountains, purplish gray and draped with mist like the webs of tent caterpillars. The clapboard house had curlicues over the porch; it looked like an old train station.

Inside sat Gardner’s son Joel, a photographer, and Susan Thornton. She and John were to be married—the week he died. A visiting colleague handed him a few short stories and a novel for comment. They talked about producing plays in Susquehanna and about a literary magazine on which he was working.

Gardner went into his study to concentrate on the story. His desk consisted of a door resting on two sawhorses, covered with pipes and papers. He hunched over the story, making quick notes with a pencil. Then he and Susan had to leave. He apologized over and over for giving me so little time.

Mickelsson's Ghosts AMZA life in fiction
Back in the living room, I asked Joel how much of his father’s work was autobiographical—a questions many writers hate but I was too young to know at the time. Not much, Joel said, but then he opened the door to the dining room. It was long and sparking with new plaster walls and thick with beams. The mead hall from Grendel, the house from Mickelsson’s Ghosts. I felt a chill, as if the spirit of those characters were looking over my shoulder.

There were other similarities. The main character in that book, Peter Mickelsson, is a professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton who is battling a failing national reputation and the IRS, which is after him for back taxes. He lives in Susquehanna and is going through a divorce. That much mirrored Gardner’s life. But Mickelsson is going mad, his mind enflamed with the ghosts of Martin Luther and Nietzsche, his wife, his son, two lovers and a murderous couple who used to live in the farmhouse. Joel smiled at this and said his father made up most of the book.

John Gardner hatThe lion of literature
Whatever its condition at the end, Gardner’s career in fiction got off to a slow start. He was born on July 21, 1933, in Batavia, New York. His father was a dairy farmer and lay preacher, his mother a high school literature teacher. His first novel sold about 1,000 copies but The Sunlight Dialogues became a bestseller in 1972 and October Light won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. He raced motorcycles, survived surgery for cancer of the colon and married twice. He lectured at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. He settled in rural Susquehanna, on a thirty-acre farm. Writers sought his comments on fiction and his clout with publishers.

A gifted writer with a marvelous ear for dialogue, he had always written interesting books. But with Mickelsson’s Ghosts he reached the top of his form, merging his beloved philosophy with a strong story line. He also seemed to have mellowed from the harsh critic of his youth to a man who wanted to say good things about others. People said he was trying to find his place. Others found him humble and generous.

The day I visited him in the Endless Mountains he sat on the couch and chatted in a smooth and quiet voice about new projects. I told him I’d had trouble finding his work in the local bookstore. It wasn’t filed under “fiction.” Concerned that his backlist had gone out of print, I asked the clerk if she carried Gardner’s books and she led me to the back of the story. There they were, filed under “literature.”

Gardner threw back that great mane of white hair and howled with delight, much like I imagine Grendel might have done.

Libraries to present book, author expo July 10

Thursday, June 10th, 2010
Libraries to present book, author expo July 10

The Associated Libraries of Monroe County will present Monroe County Book Expo on Saturday, July 10, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Eastern Monroe Public Library in Stroudsburg, PA. The event will showcase the published works of Monroe County residents. It also strives to encourage aspiring writers and support the exchange of ideas about the creative process and the publishing business.

The expo will offer two feature presentations: a morning panel of authors and bloggers focused on helping writers get their work published and noticed and an afternoon discussion by Michael Ventrella on “The Pitfalls of Self-Publishing.”

EMPL branchParticipating authors must live or own property in Monroe County. They will be offered a space that measures about 36”x36” in exchange for each donated copy of one of their published works to be shared among the public libraries in the county. Authors will be able to sell copies of their publications, meet and greet readers and network with their fellow writers. Authors are responsible for the display, stock, financial transactions and any applicable taxes on the sale of their works.

Authors are required to register in advance for the event. Registration forms are available at each of the participating libraries: Barrett-Paradise Friendly Library, Clymer Library, Eastern Monroe Public Library (including Pocono and Smithfields branch locations), Pocono Mountain Public Library and Western Pocono Community Library. The form is also available online.

For more information, call your local library or Barbara Keiser at EMPL, (570) 421-0800, x13.

Plumbing the list of world’s richest characters

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010
Plumbing the list of world's richest characters

Business magazines have this running battle to list the world’s richest people. As if that wasn’t enough, in April Forbes listed the richest fictional characters.

Topping the list is Carlisle Cullen, patriarch of the Cullen coven of vampires in the Twilight series of novels. As the magazine put it, “Cullen, age 370, has accumulated a fortune of $34.1 billion — much of it from long-term investments made with the aid of his adopted daughter Alice, who picks stocks based on her ability to see into the future.” If only we could do that, we could write for Barron’s. Also on the short list: Thurston Howell III (the character played by Jim Backus on the CBS television comedy “Gilligan’s Island”) and Scrooge McDuck (Uncle Scrooge to his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie).

MarioTo commemorate the release of “Iron Man 2,” Ranker devised a list of the richest comic book heroes and wealthiest villains of all time. Its top five? A surprising group that includes Black Panther, Namor the Sub-Mariner, Adrien Veidt (Ozymandias), Batman and Lex Luthor.

Now comes word from Forbes of the five highest-earning videogame characters, and topping the list is none other than Mario, Nintendo’s plumber who has leaped ahead of the pack since his debut in the 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong. Also on the list: Pikachu, the voice of John Madden, Sonic the Hedgehog and Link from the “Legend of Zelda.”

As Mario would say, “Yahoo!”

Rules of engagement: author Laurie King on marketing, Twitter and the power of social media

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010
Rules of engagement: author Laurie King on marketing, Twitter and the power of social media

The author of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is buzzing over social media.

With a website, author and character blogs and a presence on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, Laurie R. King is a champion of social marketing. She posts in the voice of one of her characters, runs several writing contests for fans and invites readers to discuss the books among themselves. Her efforts go beyond promoting the work to promoting engagement with readers. That reveals an understanding of the collaborative nature of social media many corporations should envy.

“Mostly what I use the social networking sites for is to tie together my readers—I set up a site, or suggest an approach, and then more or less stand back while they play with it,” she told me in an email that previews the interview here. But first, some background on the Californian who has become famous for portraying the life of perhaps the world’s most-famous detective, and the woman who has become, some would say, an equal or better.

LaurieRKingCreating a voice
Over the past 20 year Ms. King has written 20 novels, including two series, one featuring San Francisco police detective Kate Martinelli and a second with Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. Her first book, A Grave Talent (1993), received the 1994 Edgar Award for Best First Novel and a 1995 John Creasey Memorial Award. She followed with the 1996 Nero Award for A Monstrous Regiment of Women and the 2002 Macavity Award for Best Novel for Folly.

Her books about Russell and Holmes have been applauded as “the most successful recreation of the famous inhabitant of 221B Baker Street ever attempted” (Houston Chronicle) “with the power to charm even the most grizzled Baker Street irregular” (New York Daily News). The first in the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, appeared in 1994. The tenth, The God of the Hive, will be published on April 27.

She has more than 2 million copies of her novels in print.

Creating a buzz
To highlight the 20 books she’s written, and the publication of her newest novel Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novel, Ms. King embarked this year on what she calls “Twenty weeks of buzz.” In addition to the traditional methods of promotion—book tours, radio and TV appearances—Ms. King has taken to the Internet with a passion usually reserved for her characters.

Her presence on the Internet is considerable. She created a website and a blog about her activities called Mutterings. She also created another blog, this one in Mary Russell’s voice, on MySpace. Mary, in character, posts regularly on Twitter (@mary_russell)—a technique used effectively by Helen Klein Ross (@AdBroad) to promote the TV show “Mad Men.” Ms. King writes as a guest blogger on other sites and runs a Yahoo! Group. She has a page on Facebook. She’s even posted author interviews and scenic footage of the British landscape where Mary Russell first met Sherlock Holmes on YouTube.

King beekeeper coverTo share her tastes in literature, Ms. King created an account on Goodreads, where some 3 million members recommend books, compare and discuss books.

She has also bolstered reader engagement with the creation of twin writing contests. To celebrate the publication of The God of the Hive, she authorized the 2010 Mary Russell Fan Fiction Writing Contest. The contest is also sponsored by the Letters of Mary Yahoo! group. Contestants are asked to write about a character in one of the Russell novels as a teenager. The second contest, to celebrate National Library Week, invites readers to create their version of the ideal library, complete with drawings.

She even runs contests for artwork about Russell, Holmes, and their world where fans submit and judge the works.

I interviewed Ms. King (who goes by LRK online) through a series of email exchanges on April 11 of this year. Here’s her reaction to the question about her social-media efforts, and their results.

Creating a community
“I have to say, it’s funny to be considered a ‘champion of social marketing’ since I never feel I know much about what I’m doing!” she wrote. “Mostly what I use the social networking sites for is to tie together my readers—I set up a site, or suggest an approach, and then more or less stand back while they play with it. I’m kept in the loop of course, and I’ll drop in regularly, but making use of enthusiastic volunteers means that I don’t have to do all of the day-to-day work, while at the same time letting a group of key readers—‘fans’ if you will—have the fun of working with a writer they enjoy and making her job just a little bit easier.

King God of the Hive cover“I think a number of writers do this in some form or another—Dana Stabenow’s ‘Danamaniacs’ are a powerhouse of networking, for example—and so long as it is kept fairly clear which is the author speaking and which is one of the administrators, I find people are happy.

“Mostly I write and post my blog ‘Mutterings’ and stop in once a day on both the personal and fan Facebook pages. I visit regularly on the Virtual Book Club [a community on her site], reading the discussion and dropping in on some of the other threads, but I don’t tend to post a lot there unless I have something in particular to contribute—the VBC is a place for the readers to freely discuss and get to know each other, and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m in charge of what they say. A great side-effect of the VBC is that whenever LRK readers meet at an event or a conference, they often already know each other remarkably well, even if they have never met in person.

“As for Twitter, Russell’s MySpace page and Goodreads, those I work with volunteers on, answering letters sent to me (or to Russell) through the sites, helping promote things like the recent Twitter Party (I helped set this up beforehand but, being in a far distant time zone, I had very little to do with it at the time.) That last, by the way, was an absolute gas—you can see the transcript of its silliness at What the Hashtag.

“All in all, I probably average an hour a day on this stuff, more when I’m producing something like ‘A Case in Correspondence’ or working up to a book launch. [“Case” is a series of communications between Mary Russell and other important people, a running mystery of sorts on Ms. King’s various sites, the significance of which won’t become clear until readers finish The God of the Hive.

“As for results, who can tell? Last year we put a lot of effort into online venues and I came onto the New York Times’ bestseller list at #9. This year, we shall see.”

TinEye not picture-perfect but it’s a bright start

Thursday, April 8th, 2010
TinEye not picture-perfect but it’s a bright start

Ever find a photo and wonder about its origin? There’s a search engine for that. It’s called TinEye, billed as a reverse image engine that uses image identification technology rather than keywords, metadata or watermarks. According to the company, “You can submit an image to TinEye to find out where it came from, how it is being used, if modified versions of the image exist or to find higher resolution versions.”

How does the beta site work in the real world? Well, with some limitations.

TinEye

I tried it with a representative sample of images—people, objects and logos—with mixed results.

The first search, using a portrait of John F. Kennedy, yielded 81 results, including partisan blogs, poster suppliers and dating-gossip sites. (The link to the Slate online magazine did correctly identify the former president.) The search engine also led to the correct identification of singer Lady Gaga (through mtv.com), novelist John D. MacDonald (through blogs in the U.S. and Russia) and Dilbert, even though the comic strip contained three frames and multiple images. TinEye showed no results for personalities such as magazine finance writer Dyan Machan.

A search using the Leaning Tower of Pisa turned up 31 results, including several postings on the photo-sharing site Flickr. A search using the image of a bottle of Coca-Cola yielded a 2009 blog post about one of the company’s marketing campaigns, along with 19 other results.

For the final search I used the logo from one of my agency’s business-to-business clients, GGB. TinEye found the image on a French industry-directory site, correctly identifying the company as the manufacturer of metal-polymer plain bearings.

The conclusion? TinEye is good at finding images of popular people, objects and brands. In my limited sample it did not lead to official sources, so if you need to annotate research reports, the service may lose some value. I also could not consistently find information about image location, use or version, but that may apply only to certain types of images.

As an image search engine, TinEye isn’t picture-perfect but it could have a bright future, especially as it enlarges its database. On the whole, the service is a fast way to identify common images, and a fun way to view the Web.