New Name, New Look, New News

What’s with the new name at the top of the page? No, I didn’t get divorced (sorry, all you hot dudes, I’m still taken). Instead, I decided to adopt a pseudonym. No, I’m not on the run from the law/drug smugglers/the paparazzi. I just decided that I did not, at some future date when my first novel is published, want to sit across a conference table at work from someone who has read one of my sex scenes and knows I’m the author. I once had to sit across a conference table at work from the doctor who had done my most recent pap smear. That was weird enough.

Over the next few weeks, this site will undergo some other changes–new theme, new header, and probably a few other tweaks. Why, you ask? Well, that brings me to two bits of news:

Continue reading “New Name, New Look, New News”

#CBWC: Early morning at the Camp Magruder Boat House

This week’s entry for Cee’s Black and White Photo Challenge (CBWC) includes photos depicting in or on water.

Boathouse, Camp Magruder near Rockaway Beach, Oregon, October 2007

As the pandemic wears on, I find myself looking back at old photos and reliving old memories of times when we could travel and gather. Better days are coming, but in the meantime, I find joy in remembering some of my favorite places.

Every fall we would take our son to our church’s annual family camp at Camp Magruder. Magruder sits on a strip of sand, with a lake (shown in the pic) on the east side and the Pacific Ocean on the west. For 2 days, our son could play with other kids and have some of the freedom that kids rarely have anymore: to roam around with minimal adult supervision, climb trees, run through the forest, and just be a kid. Magruder was and is one of his happy places. Mine, too.

#FOTD: Spring crocus

Closeup macro shot of purple and white crocus blossom with orange anthers
For Cee’s Flower of the Day challenge, spring crocus from my Portland garden, March 10, 2008.

When I lived in wintery places like Portland and Flagstaff, I loved crocuses, because they bloomed so early and brought a little color to the drab late winter landscape. Hang on a little longer, they seemed to say. Sunshine and light are coming. That seems an apt message for this time of year and these times we live in. Hang on, y’all. Sunshine and light are coming.

A beautiful day in the neighborhood #3: red tails in the trees

Red-tailed hawks in the dead tree in front of my neighbor’s house here in Tucson. Photo taken November 27, 2020

We’re still getting used to being city dwellers after spending the last 6 1/2 years in rural Flagstaff. One of our biggest surprises has been the number of birds in our midtown Tucson neighborhood. We have tons of doves, flocks of them in the trees and foraging in our front yard, along with a few pigeons and some other birds I haven’t identified yet. The coolest of the avian life forms, though, are the red-tailed hawks and cooper’s hawks. The red tails have a nest in a huge eucalyptus tree down the road from us, and they hang out in the dead tree in front of my neighbor’s house. My Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot has a 20x zoom, so I’m able to get some pretty good shots of birds in tree tops.

7 Reasons Why I Will Hate Your Book

Insecure Writer's Support Group badge

Happy IWSG Day! For those who are new here, I participate in the monthly Insecure Writers Support Group blog hop. This month’s optional question is: Being a writer, when you’re reading someone else’s work, what stops you from finishing a book/throws you out of the story/frustrates you the most about other people’s books?

The more I learn about the craft of writing, the more I read differently. I notice problems in other people’s writing to which I would have been oblivious before. Before, I might have noticed that I wasn’t really into a book, that the book didn’t hook me or engage me or hold my attention, but I might not have been able to tell you why. Now I can, and I’m going to proceed to do just that. Here we go:

7 Reasons Why I Will Hate Your Book

(or at least give up on it).

In no particular order:

  1. Unlikeable characters. I’m fine with antiheroes (in fact, I usually like them). I’m fine with flawed characters (no one likes a Mary Sue). But if your characters are all miserable, hateful, selfish, narcissistic, and/or annoying–and they never redeem themselves–I’m going to hate your book. I’m lookin’ at you, Gone Girl. Also Seinfeld, which, thankfully, never became a book. I don’t like to spend time with awful people–in real life or in fiction. But give your arrogant narcissist some genuine charm and vulnerability, and you’ll hook me. A great current example is Lucifer from the Netflix series of the same name (and based on a character created by Neil Gaiman). Lucifer is insufferable–but also funny and charming and adorable and emotionally vulnerable. He’s the literal devil, and he’s won me over entirely.
  2. Telling rather than showing, #1. “Show, don’t tell,” is clichéd advice, sure, but it became clichéd for a good reason. Sometimes brief narrative summary is necessary. I don’t need to see your character go through a bunch of mundane activities; just get him to the crime scene and get on with it. But beware of infodumps. Give me just as much backstory or setting or world-building as I need to understand the story, especially in the beginning. And even better, sprinkle it around, let a few vivid details stand in for the rest, and show them to me through the eyes of your viewpoint character instead of through your own. Also, beware of writing that reads like: this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. Slow down enough to put me in the scene. Show me the setting, use sensory details to help me feel the burning heat or icy wind, and most of all, show me what the viewpoint character feels. More on that in the next item on my hate list.
  3. Telling rather than showing, #2. Telling about emotions instead of showing them. Sometimes it’s OK to tell me how a character feels, like when the moment isn’t particularly critical, but usually you want to show emotions rather than tell them. Why? Because when you show them–and do it well–I’ll feel them right along with your character. Don’t tell me your heroine lusted after your hero. Show me the goosebumps on her arm when he brushes against her. Let me hear her voice squeak when she tries to talk to him. Let me taste him when she kisses him, let me feel the heat of his hands on her body. Make me pant after him as hard as she does, and I’ll stay up all night reading your book. Same goes for fear, hatred, anger, and all the other passions that get characters into trouble. Use body language, visceral reactions, action beats, short bits of internal monologue, and even short bits of backstory to make me feel what your characters feel.
  4. Blatant racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc. Of course if your story is set in the past, it needs to reflect the attitudes of that time and place. But your story should accurately reflect the real world (and the real world isn’t all white, straight, cisgendered, and able-bodied) and should present a diverse cast of characters with sensitivity and accuracy. It’s easy to accidentally write a stereotype (I’ve done it myself, I’m sorry to say), but there are lots of resources to help you avoid that while still diversifying your books. Confession time: this is an area I need to work on. I tend to let my fear of getting it wrong keep me from fully diversifying my stories. I’m going to be spending lots of time on Writing the Other and looking at other resources to up my game.
  5. Bad sex scenes. I get it. Sex scenes are hard to get right; at least I find them hard to get right. What I’m going to say here is primarily my opinion, and it doesn’t apply to erotica, because that is not a genre I read or write, so I would never presume to tell anyone how to do it well. So, with those caveats out of the way, my pet peeves with sex scenes include:
    • Gratuitousness. Your characters don’t need to bonk constantly. Yes, even in romance. Let the poor things rest once in awhile, so they don’t exhaust themselves before page 100. Seriously, every scene should exist to serve a specific purpose, and that includes sex scenes. Know why you’re choosing to show these characters having this kind of sex at this point in the story. And if there isn’t a story-related reason, consider skipping it. With sex, less is usually more (at least in fiction).
    • Unnecessary explicitness. I’m not a prude. I have no problem with explicit sex in fiction–including my own fiction. But, as noted previously, it should serve a specific purpose. Why are you showing us exactly where Character A is putting his/her/their finger/tongue/purple-helmeted love warrior? (Narrator: Do not, under any circumstances, include the phrase, “purple-helmeted love warrior” in your sex scene.) We all know that flap A fits into slot B. If you choose to show the flaps and slots, make sure it’s necessary to advance plot and character. And restrain yourself, lest your sex scene sound like a letter to Penthouse written by a fifteen-year-old. I read a romance recently that I really enjoyed–great characters, a fresh premise, and lots of chemistry. The problem? The sex scenes went on for many pages of graphic description that read like bad porn and did nothing to characterize the people going at it. Such a lost opportunity.
    • Bad sex. If you want the sex to be perceived as positive, it should be fully and enthusiastically consensual (so, so many writers get this wrong). Also watch out for mood killers–silly names for body parts, blatantly bad technique, and anatomically impossible positions come to mind here. Example: a famous writer’s most famous sex scene has the female main character’s breasts, “quivering like puppies waiting to be petted.” I cringe every time I read that line. Quivering or not, puppies are not sexy. Ew.
    • Just-the-facts sex: As noted above, we all know flap A goes into slot B. It’s OK to show us that, but show us more. Show us the emotional exchange between the characters (or lack thereof, if that’s important to the story). Show us how these 2 (or however many) people relate to each other. Make us feel what your point of view character feels, beyond just the sexual sensations. If all you want to convey is that your characters slept together, send them into the bedroom, close the door, and move on to the aftermath.
  6. Bad writing. That’s a broad category, but here are some of my pet peeves: 1) a zillion adverbs per page; 2) overwrought dialogue tags that make all your characters chew the scenery (she snarled, he gritted, they hissed, etc.); 3) starting almost every sentence with a present participle–negative bonus points for creating physical or temporal impossibilities (“Strolling up to the Ferrari, she shot Thaddeus dead.” “Wiping her prints off the gun, she touched up her makeup.”) These are newbie mistakes that tell me you haven’t taken the time to learn your craft.
  7. Sloppy writing and poor to nonexistent editing: grammatical errors, typos, punctuation errors, usage errors. I know some writers can’t afford to hire an editor. A good editor is expensive! But maybe you can barter with a friend or relative to copyedit your manuscript. Try offering tacos; that technique usually works on me. Also, consider devoting some time to learning basic grammar, punctuation, and usage. It isn’t taught in school as much as it used to be. *waves cane* Back in my day, we diagrammed sentences, and we liked it! (Narrator: They did not like it.) Seriously, if you’re a writer, words and sentences are your tools. The more you can learn how to use them correctly, the less money you’ll need to spend on editors, and the fewer readers you’ll lose because they don’t want to wade through your error-infested prose.

OK, so now that I’ve spent several paragraphs telling you what I hate, let me spend just a little more time pointing you to some resources to help you avoid those mistakes. Note that the book links are Amazon affiliate links, so I’ll get a few pennies if you use them to purchase.

Happy New Year, IWSG-ers! May all your words come easy this year.

Looking back on 2020, Episode 2: Attack of the Books

I don’t know what I was thinking when I created my first Looking Back on 2020 post and decided to riff on Star Wars movie titles. Now I feel like I’ve committed to writing 9 of these posts (or 11 if you count Rogue One, which you definitely should, and Solo, which you probably shouldn’t). I’m not sure anyone wants to read that many posts about my experiences in 2020. Maybe I can shift to the original trilogy for looking forward to 2021 (2021: A New Hope has a nice ring to it).

Anyhoo, let’s move on to one of my favorite topics as a writer and lifelong reader: books! Of the 83 books I read last year, most were good, quite a few were great, and some were outstanding. In this post, I’ll share the outstanding ones. Here we go (full disclosure – links below are Amazon affiliate links, so if you use them to buy, I’ll get a few pennies):

My favorite reads of 2020

Fiction

I can’t believe I hadn’t read Coben till this year. I picked up a paperback copy of Tell No One somewhere (garage sale? Little Free Library?), and once I started reading it, I barely put it down till I finished.

This short story by the author of Wild was so moving and beautifully written.

I reread the Hunger Games trilogy this year before checking out the new prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. The prequel was disappointing, but the original trilogy was as wonderful as ever.

Stephen Fry reading Sherlock Holmes? Yes, please!

I hadn’t read Night Shift since high school, and I enjoyed it even more this time around. Amazing short story collection from one of my literary idols.

I’ve been hooked on Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme series for a couple of years now. The Devil’s Teardrop is a standalone thriller, and it is un-putdownable.

I absolutely love the Stillhouse Lake series. I read the first one while I sat by my mother’s deathbed, and it gave me a few precious hours of escape from the misery of watching my mother fade away. Rachel Caine passed away from breast cancer this year. RIP Ms. Caine, and thank you.

Another page-turner of a thriller. I believe I got this one as part of the Kindle First Reads program that comes with my Amazon Prime membership.

Riveting short story from Deaver. Included in Kindle Unlimited.

Lovely and moving short story from Chee. I have to put in a word here for Amazon Original Stories. I’ve discovered several amazing authors I’d never read via these stories.

Another gem from Amazon Original Stories.

Nonfiction – General

Rayne Constantine. Pizza, Pincushions, and Playing it Straight. No Amazon link for this one – the link goes to the author’s purchase site. Before Constantine became Internet-famous for running the Insufferably Intolerant Science Nerd page on Facebook, she was a sex worker in Australia. This is her memoir of that time, and it is both educational and hilarious. This is another one I barely put down.

I’d been hearing about The Miracle Morning for a few years but didn’t read it till last summer. I tried the morning routine for a couple of months, and I really enjoyed it. My only issue was that it cut into my writing time too much, so I’ve scaled it back considerably. If you can make the time, it’s a great way to start the day.

I debated whether to list this one below with the writing books, but it really isn’t a writing book. It’s a collection of essays by famous writers, literary and genre, on their creative processes. Even if you never write anything more creative than a grocery list, you will love this book.

Kornacki’s analysis of how we got to the mess we’re in is spot on and entertaining (and depressing).

Nonfiction – Writing

I’m starting to plan the sequel to my first novel, Vanishing, Inc., and since I had no idea about how to write a series, I did a little self-educating. This book offers some excellent practical advice. FYI, I just sent Vanishing, Inc., out for professional editing. Hopefully I’ll be ready to query agents in a few months.

Solid advice for writing stories that will sell.

James Scott Bell’s writing books are always excellent–clear, practical, useful.

Ingermanson’s original Snowflake Method is what got me started writing fiction, and this book is just as good.

Great, practical advice for revising a novel, a process I continue to struggle with.

I used Yardley’s advice to create a query letter for Pitch Wars this year. I didn’t get selected, but 2 mentor teams requested my full manuscript, so that’s not too shabby.

Can you tell I’m a big Cathy Yardley fan?

I’ve always been a little baffled by Twitter. Tweeting usually feels like screaming into a void. But this book offers practical advice for authors who want to use Twitter effectively to build a platform without spending hours, well, screaming into a void.

Apparently, if you want your book to sell, you have to figure out which genre it fits into. As someone who reads across most genres, I find that concept a little sad, but there it is. This book will help you figure out where your book belongs in the market.

Great tips here for writing more and writing faster. Now if only I could find a way to revise faster. *sigh*

A beautiful day in the neighborhood #2: Holiday Creosote

Picture of a creosote bush in a Tucson front yard. The hand-lettered sign in front reads: Decorate Me! Neighborhood Holiday Creosote. Be Creative! Include name, address, message. No Gathering - Social Distance.
Seen in a front yard around the corner from me in Tucson: a holiday creosote bush.

Continuing my attempt to notice the beautiful and/or quirky in my everyday surroundings. Tucson is a quirky and beautiful city, so I should have no shortage of material.

I love this little neighborhood experiment–communal decorating of a creosote bush. It says so much about the kind of attitude that helps us get through tough times and lead a happy life: making due with what you have (because Christmas trees don’t really grow in the desert) and inviting others to share what they have to create something beautiful and joyful.

#FOTD: Coke can flower

Picture of a flower made from a Coke can, along with a bird feeder made from a rusty can and wind chimes made with keys.
Scene from the Barrio Garden at the Tucson Botanical Garden, December 29, 2020.

For Cee’s Flower of the Day photo challenge.

We live only a mile or so from the Tucson Botanical Garden, and we decided to check it out during Winter Break. We had to cancel our Winter Break travel plans due to the Microbe that Must not be Named, so we are exploring our new city instead (outside only, masked and socially distanced). According to the audio tour:

This shady barrio (neighborhood) garden came to life with the help of local Mexican-American gardeners and honors the distinctive gardens and yards found in Tucson’s Mexican-American neighborhoods…  the distinctive decorative style featur[es] ‘found objects,’ family mementos and whimsical use of  recycled materials. 

https://tucsonbotanical.org/tours/nuestro-jardin-audio-tour/

The barrio garden is a wonderful example of human creativity and the human impulse to create beauty with whatever is on hand. I’m not Mexican-American, but I grew up in a family that made due with what we had. My parents lived through the Depression, so making due and avoiding waste was ingrained in them, and we didn’t have much money when I was a kid. My dad didn’t seem to care much about beauty, but my mother did, and she found ways to create it no matter how bad things were. I think she would have appreciated the Coke can flower and the other handmade items in this picture for their beauty and ingenuity and the spirit of determination behind them, the stubborn refusal to knuckle under to scarcity and hardship. I know I do.