Monthly Archives: August 2016

Where do I go from here?

Confession: as I was trying to think of a title for this post, the song “Where Do I Go From Here?” from Pocahontas II totally played through my head, so I used it for my title. Even though it would be probably more accurate to say “Where the road leads next” or something like that.

With the conclusion of my writing course also came the conclusion of ready-made blog posts relating to writing. Now I have to write, then write about writing, instead of just writing about learning about writing. It takes a lot more self-discipline, but with all the ideas bouncing around in my head and scribbled in my notebooks (and halfway begun on my computer) it shouldn’t be too hard to accomplish the writing part, maybe just the writing about writing, since I’m not always good with sharing.

But, when I sat down the other day to begin, thinking I’d finish the project nearest to completion, it hit me how little I’ve looked at other projects. I thought I was finishing my 2015 NaNoWriMo novel. I had about 2,000 words to wrap it up (luckily I remembered how I’d always intended to finish, so it didn’t take me too long). But when I went to write it, I realized it was, in fact, my 2014 NaNoWriMo novel that I’d never finished. I guess I just kind of forgot about the time-traveler who came between outer space and the present…

I feel bad for my neglected characters, and for the ending I’ve now tacked on, having momentarily forgotten who I’d let live and where I’d left them. They are happily together, but I know that when, someday, I get around to editing, that ending will stick out like a sore thumb. But, at least I’ll edit remembering who is dead and who isn’t.

But, it also makes me feel slightly guilty toward my other characters in other projects who have long been neglected. I have two partial stories that I haven’t touched in three years. It’s sad.

So, in the two months I have left before November, in addition to NaNo planning (of which I guess you’d say now I’m a firm believer in), I’m going to reread those stories, so I know where I stopped, and with any luck, get some progress made. I may not be able to complete both of them (especially since the one was barely started) but perhaps I can at least flesh out my thoughts and direction for those as well. I think, the more I plan for my writing, the easier it will be to write, to make time each day to write, even just one scene or a bit of dialogue. And if I know where I’m going, I’ll spend less time trying to decide where to go, and the easier the words and ideas flow, the more enjoyable the writing process really is.

So, that is where life finds me now; one old project down, two more to go (well, a lot more than that, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). It’s time to see what I can accomplish with a little bit of determination and some concentration.

A Gentleman in Moscow

I love Russian history. I’m not sure what it is about Russia that just interests me.

When I saw an advanced copy of A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, I jumped at the chance to read it.

Count Alexander Rostov is placed under house arrest, sentenced to live the rest of his life in the Metropol Hotel, never to set foot outside again.

When I picked it up, I expected a more bitter story, a man left behind and forgotten. But that’s not at all where the story goes.

Rostov continues on, adjusting and adapting to what comes his way, and lives a full life, despite his confinement.

The story is snapshots of his life among snapshots of Russia’s growth, and his interactions show that while the old may be cast aside, it’s not quite thrown away all together.

The story is written with great detail, full of friendship, humor, and some heartache. It’s a story of overcoming and continuing on. I expected a story of a man who watches bitterly as life passes by and forgets him. What I found was a story of a man who meets life’s curve balls with an open mind and a courageous heart.

Keep an eye out for A Gentleman in Moscow, set for publication on September 6. It’s well worth the time to read.

The end of the road (or at least the course)

Last week I finished the Write Storybooks for Children course. It seems fitting to write one last post about my thoughts on the course overall.

I bought access to the course for $20 thanks to a Groupon deal. At the time, I was working part-time and looking for something else to do, and a course and writing sounded perfect.

While I definitely gleaned some information from the course, it wasn’t particularly mind blowing. I think the course would have worked much better paired with an ongoing project. My one piece of advice would be to have a project in mind and work on it in tandem with the course, putting to use the tips they offer.

What is interesting is that the course authors described their writing style as friendly and personable. I, personally, would describe it as condescending and a little arrogant, though perhaps that’s to be expected a little by an American taking a British course.

Come November, when I’m most likely to put anything I’ve learned to use, we’ll see how much impact it’s made on my writing and mentality. And perhaps in the time before, I’ll make some time to work on some other projects.

Overall, I don’t think my $20 was wasted. But I understand why they had to offer a 96 percent discount. The $695 price tag originally attached to the class is absurd. I understand the authors have to make a profit off the course, but frankly the content isn’t worth more than $20.

But, I think this was an excellent learning experience, in several ways, not the least of which is to be wary about online classes. With the constant changing of the business, it’s hard to keep it current without making it a full-time job. But that means in the information is generic at best, and for somehow who isn’t looking for an introduction, it can be a big disappointment.

I didn’t learn as much as I wanted, but I think I learned a few things to work on, and that makes it worth it to me.

The Underground Railroad

With a name like The Underground Railroad, one has to expect an emotional read.

But I have to confess, Colson Whitehead’s book left me a little disappointed, mostly because it was just not what I expected.

It isn’t a bad book, in fact I still enjoyed reading it. But, it wasn’t the fast-paced, heart-wrenching story I assumed it would be.

The story follows Cora, a slave girl who certainly does experience her share of trials and horrors. She runs away, and never stops running. It’s a look at the fears and challenges that runaway slaves faced in the pre-civil war era.

But, Cora is matter of fact, and the narrative is too. Most often, the bad things Cora experiences are shown through memories or flashbacks. It’s not depicted in the present, which takes some of the horror out of it, as Cora emotionlessly looks back. It’s hard to feel her pain because she hardly expresses any. Cora is angry, but even her rage is emotionlessly described.

The book is written in a style that is hard to describe. It doesn’t quite feel like a novel, but it’s not a diary. It feels a bit like non-fiction, but not a biography of memoir. It reads almost like an essay on Cora’s experiences. Perhaps it is because the book isn’t broken up by chapters as much as by subhead titles for various sections.

Overall, it’s not a bad book, in fact it’s quite good. It’s a different style, but it worked for Whitehead’s story.

Promoting your product 

If there is one thing I’m weak at, it’s selling myself and my talents. The final module of my children’s writing course was on self-marketing, and essentially focused on writing outside of books. Mostly, it focused on blogging. The gist was, simply, have a blog. The authors didn’t offer any content advice, which I guess makes sense, you don’t want everyone writing the same stuff. But they certainly took a lot time to tell their students to blog.

They also encouraged a fleshed-out about me section, where readers can get to know you. This can help them also get interested in your books. Everything you write for public consumption should be focused on building a readership for your own books. This makes sense, and is why I’m going to have to do some thinking about what to blog on next, now that this course is over.

But, at least I’m already started on what is apparently the key piece of self-promotion. I write all this boring snark and hope someone reads it.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

I have to stop starting my reviews with “I finally read…” or “At long last I got around to…” because that could literally describe the majority of books I read and write reviews on. However, it’s true that I finally got around to reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

I was only vaguely familiar with the story. I was pretty sure Jekyll and Hyde were the same person, but I was foggy on the details and the mystery surrounding it, so now that I’ve ruined it for anyone who didn’t already know that, let me say you can still enjoy the book (it’s short anyway).

One thing I enjoy about some of the classics is that you don’t have to be so abstract to understand the underlying theme of the book. It’s obviously a look at the good and evil natures inside each person. Stevenson’s opinion is that the more one indulges evil, the more evil becomes uncontrollable.

Dr. Jekyll finds this out the hard way, and it becomes harder and harder for him to keep his literal double personality hidden from his closest friends, provoking the question, if he didn’t think it was wrong, why hide it? And if he did, why indulge? Of course, that is the question we all face at one time or another, in more or less dramatic situations, as it may be.

It’s a quick little read, and one easily falls in with Mr. Utterson, whose viewpoint we watch from, trying to sort out the mystery behind Jekyll and Hyde. And though I remembered they were the same, there was still the intrigue of trying to figure out how he was doing it.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a great way to dip your toe in the waters of the classics, getting a feel for the writing style without getting overwhelmed by it.

Going the e-book route

Honestly, I expected this module of the course to contain more. It turned out to be the shortest module so far (and there’s only one left). I’m not sure whether this means the writers are snubbing e-books, don’t know anything about them, or just didn’t want to go into depth, but I was a little disappointed, especially since I’d wager that for many of their students, this is the best option for a starting place.

The continued with a discussion on design, this time more technical, reminding writers to make sure they leave correct margin, line spacing, font size, headers, footers, ect. If you are publishing yourself, there is no one else to pick up the slack in this area, and it’s an important one, because it can make the difference between readability, and people shying away from a train wreck.

The authors also talked a little about ISBNs, though I would hardly consider it a discussion to help new writers weigh the option. As far as I can tell, the only reason not to have an ISBN is because you have to pay for it–unless you go through some of the free publishing sites on the Internet.

Finally, the module looked at the correct digital format for an e-book. Most retailers, aside from Amazon, will use a .epub format. If you go through a digital publisher, my understanding is that the common formats can be converted (.jpg, .gif, .pdf, .doc). However, if you’re doing it yourself, you have to convert it yourself. Then is the decision again to choose to use the free sites or purchase the conversion.

And that was essentially the module. From it, I’d guess none of the course authors have actually published an e-book, which is OK, but it would explain why the module was so sparse. Naturally, anything involving technology is going to be subject to change frequently, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to write in extensive detail, but, I’d ask, has the process really changed that much? Or is there simply nothing else to say?

The Last Days of Night

I use electricity every day, and it’s been around long enough that I don’t give it a second thought.

I knew Thomas Edison invented the light bulb (thanks National Treasure), but I wasn’t aware of the controversy that surrounded light bulbs a and electricity during the 1880s and into the 1890s.

Graham Moore uses fiction as a lens to bring this controversy and the lives of key players to life. And though I’ve never yet read an Erik Larson book, if it’s true that Moore’s Last Days of Night reads like Larson’s books, I’m excited to delve in.

Moore looks at the electricity war through the eyes of Paul Cravath, a young lawyer who takes on the case of George Westinghouse, who is being sued for patent infringement by Thomas Edison. The intrigue in the story is captivating, making you feel bad for poor Cravath who is fooled at every turn, it seems.

The story brings to life the world of inventing that most of us would never think of, and the various kinds of inventors. As Moore has Cravath reflect, Edison is an inventor who invents to solve problems. Westinghouse invents to create the best possible product. Nikola Tesla, who features prominently in the story also, invents for the joy of inventing. The advent of patents, while protecting an individual’s creation, also makes it challenging for others who have similar ideas or who know how to build on top of or improve an existing idea.

The book could very easily have gotten bogged down in technical jargon and scientific explanations that few would understand, but Moore did a good job explaining simply the concepts that needed to be explained.

An author’s note at the end helps readers understand the history mixed in with the fiction. While not all true, Moore did use real people and events throughout his story, though at times rearranging the chronology and condensing the timeline significantly. He goes through and outlines this in the author’s note, including also several primary and secondary sources he used.

Overall, it was a good read. The short chapters made it easy to squeeze one or two in when I had a few minutes, and while it is still a work of fiction, I feel more enlightened about the history of light bulbs and electricity than I had before.

Keep an eye out for The Last Days of Night, coming in the end of August.

Designing a cover

Despite the warning of the old saying, books are largely judged by their covers.

We’ve all done it. If a cover looks boring or we can’t tell what the book is about, we’ll skip over it. If a title is intriguing, it may help make up for a boring cover. While a title may determine whether we pick up a book for a longer look, a cover can determine whether we look inside, or even read the back. In short, the cover is an important element.

Obviously, the components to a cover change depending on the kind of book and the age range. Non-fiction is fairly simple–use pictures of the book’s topic. Fiction, however, has ample room for creativity.

If you’ve looked at many picture books, you’ve likely noticed that the cover, as a whole, tends to be one full picture stretching from the back cover and wrapping around to the front. Most of the time, it is an illustration from the book, perhaps one part of a picture magnified. For picture books, then, choosing a cover means choosing a good illustration to represent, and choosing a font and color that suits the content and complements the illustration.

The older the target age range, the more variation there is in covers. Throughout chapter books and young readers books, covers will often show the characters or represent a scene from the story. The age range determines the color schemes and the font used. For example, a maturing 12-year-old may be quickly moving past the bright purples and pinks that would immediately attract the attention of a seven- or eight-year-old. But using darker colors–black, grey, greens or blues– might convince a ten-year-old that the book doesn’t have enough energy and excitement, while for a teen audience, a darker scheme may hint at mystery, intrigue and danger.

It’s interesting to consider how we, as people, interpret colors and hues as we get older. For a young reader, bright colors may mean action, energy and, the right colors may even indicate danger. But for teens, bright colors may indicate childishness, or parties, romance and fun adventure. Within children’s books, darker colors would, to me, indicate a more serious story, perhaps history, or something sad or solemn. Where in books for teens and adults, darker colors would hint at suspense, thrills, danger, mystery and intrigue.

If module sixteen had anything thought provoking, it’s definitely this idea that colors not only matter, but they play a significant role in piquing the interest of the audience. The wrong choice could mean obscurity for an otherwise excellent work.

Another element is the illustrations used for the cover. For children’s books, as I said, it’s largely pieces taken from the books, or sketches of the main characters. For teens, there is more leeway to use photos or abstract illustrations to entice and intrigue. One example that comes to mind is Ruta Sepetys’ book, Between Shades of Grey. The front cover is a close-up shot of a closed eye, emphasizing the snowflakes on the eyelashes. For kids, this would not be a good choice. They’d likely put the book away and move on to the next title. Yet, for teens and adults, the cover prompts emotion. You can easily imagine, from the image and title, that it’s going to be a provoking and bittersweet tale. And that’s exactly what it is. The picture used for the cover could have been just as successfully used for a romance title as well, in my opinion. So in this instance, the choice of title paired with the artwork is what tips readers off as to the content of the book.