Tag Archives: Alexander McCall Smith

Book Diary 2017

book diary

 

While I have seldom been able to sustain writing a diary for any considerable length of time, in 2017 I successfully kept my resolution of logging the books I read.

I didn’t invest in a fancy, leather-bound tome, but just picked up a nice small spiral notebook and put in notations of date completed, title and author, any comments I chose to make such as “bland & boring,” or “amazing plot twists,” or a lengthy observation of writing technique, and a one-to-five-star rating. Some titles received a page-long commentary, and several scored nothing more than date and title. I discovered gems. I reread old favorites. And I suffered through a few blah books that made me wish I had my money back.

Still, I kept with it from start to finish. Last night, I counted my entries and the total came to 73 books. Most of them are fiction, with maybe less than a half-dozen tomes falling into the nonfiction camp.

My goal was 100, but as in 2016, I fell short of that objective. Over the summer teaching hiatus, I did not achieve many lazy days where I could just recline on the sofa, sip cold lemonade, and read. That would have boosted my number, of course. And there were the few books that were dull or over-plotted or banal or less interesting than their cover blurb had promised. Those took sometimes as long as a week to drag through, longer than my average zip through a novel every two or three days. And there were a few books started but left unfinished, which I did not record at all.

I try always to find new authors, to sample books in genres I don’t normally read. Such discoveries keep reading fun and lead sometimes to serendipitous new favorites. However, such exploration happened less frequently than I’d hoped for. Given the death of all brick-and-mortar bookstores in my college town except Barnes & Noble, I loiter and browse less these days. I used to find many wonderful discoveries in the Hastings store. Likewise, at Sam’s Club the choice used to be small but excellent. (Lately, not so much.) In 2017, there seemed to be too many days when all I could do was fall into the battered old leather armchair after the dinner hour and reread a familiar author simply for the same sense of comfort as dunking a gooey grilled-cheese sandwich in a mug of hot cream-of-tomato soup.

Still, I found other ways to explore online. For example, I burrowed into a couple of books by Frances Gray Patton, most notably her novel, Good Morning Miss Dove, simply because I like the movie based on that work. During my childhood, I learned to watch a movie’s credits for the title of the book that inspired it. I would race to the public library and hunt in the card catalogue for it. In the days before DVDs or VCRs, and without cable, I found that reading such a book was a way to spend a bit longer with the characters, setting, or story I’d experienced with the film. Sometimes the book wasn’t in the library’s collection, but often it was. I discovered that some books were better than the films made from them, and some movies were a huge improvement over the book. I haven’t chased books this way in a long time, but watching Patton’s Good Morning Miss Dove brought back that desire. Finding a copy online was easy; however, the movie mirrors the book almost exactly word for word. To my disappointment, the novel offered me no additional depth or nuance. Still, I read some of Patton’s other novellas and short stories as well, just to give her a fair chance. Although I found her style to be clear and elegant, her stories carry a dated flavor, her wit is a bit too mid-century, and her topics tend to be too mundane for my taste. Miss Dove is by far her most outstanding character–so brilliantly depicted that I–no doubt along with many other readers over the years–find myself wishing I had had such a teacher in elementary school.

And of course, 2017 brought the obligatory annual books from authors I collect:  Ann B. Ross, Alexander McCall Smith, Sue Grafton, Charles Todd, and John Sandford … to name a few. I decided to stop following Felix Francis, and so did not purchase his 2017 title. Ross’s Miss Julia series has had some stumbles and weak offerings in recent years, but 2017 brought a comeback in a stronger plot that made me glad I’ve stuck with her. I have long enjoyed Smith’s stories set in Botswana, but their thin story lines seem to become progressively wispier as the story action is increasingly overshadowed by his philosophical musings, and I am wondering how much longer I’ll race to pick up the next novel about Precious Ramotswe. Sue Grafton, alas, has recently passed away, and her children have decided not to attempt to complete the final book in her mystery series. Although she’d begun “Z,” work on the manuscript was interrupted too much by Grafton’s illness to have progressed far, and I applaud her heirs for not putting out an incomplete manuscript or clumsily patching one together that would be beneath Grafton’s usual standard. Charles Todd remains excellent. John Sandford continues to deliver exciting action and amazing plot twists, and his 2017 thriller was well worth the money.

I also dived into a few books from authors popular in past decades whose names have faded now: Mary Roberts Rinehart, Emilie Loring, Victoria Holt, Alistair Maclean, Frances Parkinson Keyes, and Phyllis Whitney. It is interesting to occasionally wander among these former bestselling writers and see who I still find engrossing, who I’ve outgrown, and who is too dated now to enjoy.

During the recent holidays, I decided that I’m no longer going to care if I read a mysteries series out of order. Never mind all the series that I’ve enjoyed and tried to keep up with, only to fall behind. Just seeing a stack of unread books by the same author growing here and there has begun to feel oppressive, a silent rebuke to me for not keeping up. So I decided to throw off oppression and rebel. No longer am I going to put off such books for the day when I have the leisure–or determination–to read them in strict order. If a volume can’t stand alone without its predecessors to prop it up and force the plot to make sense, then too bad. I am going to just read them as and where I happen to pick them up.

Accordingly, I chose a book from Anne Perry’s William Monk series, one that surfaced while I was rearranging the living room to put up my Christmas tree. Although I stopped reading the series some years ago, back before Hester had married Monk, I caught up easily and found that despite Hester and Monk now being a married couple, it made little difference. Thanks to Perry’s deft descriptions or occasional lines of explanation, I was neither lost nor left floundering for understanding. With Jennie Bentley’s charming home-renovation mysteries, I’ve found reading them out of order only means that sometimes the characters are married and sometimes the protagonist is still planning the wedding. Not a problem. And with Carolyn Hart’s ghost, Bailey Ruth, I met that character for the first time in Merrily, Merrily Ghost, and didn’t mind not having begun with whatever story comes before. What a relief to get past such a silly little stumbling block.

As for what 2018 holds, I’ve already scribbled several entries in my book diary, and I plan to continue this habit of recording my reading. I have read two authors never tried before–Mickey Spillane and Susan Gloss–and enjoyed both enough to seek more titles. And I came across an early John D. MacDonald I hadn’t read. Hurray!

I hope you all are making resolutions to read more. And if not, why not? Even the pleasures of Instagram and Pinterest should not supersede books!

journal and deskbest journals

comp books

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Quote for the Day

“Nothing will stop you from being creative as effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”

–John Cleese

How’s that for a piece of insight from a highly creative actor and writer? Fear is an enormous barrier, a hindrance that some of us never seem to move past. It doesn’t just affect newbies writing their first few stories. It can strike a writer at any time, at any stage in a professional career.

Let’s say you’re inspired by a new plot idea, one that excites you. As you plot it, however, doubts creep in. Is this plausible? Yeah, seems to be. Can I do it? Not sure, but I think so. Has anything like it been done before? Not that I recall. Is there a market for it? Uh, maybe not. Should I try it? Probably not. Why did I think it would work? No editor is going to buy this. Better put it aside for now.

How many good story ideas are lost forever because we’re afraid to write them? If they’re new and truly different, they don’t fit the market. And so we back away. Or we follow editorial hesitation and abandon what might make us a star.

Every huge hit or new genre in commercial fiction begins because a writer dared to be different.

Tom Clancy was an insurance guy that channeled his obsession with all things military into a novel that he wrote in his basement in his spare time. It was an era when the U.S. military was understaffed and underfunded. It had acquired a reputation for ineptitude. It was struggling and unappreciated. But Clancy dared to be different. He admired our people in uniform and wanted to celebrate what our military did right. Whether he ignored his fears or was unaware of the market, he wrote The Hunt for Red October and pushed it into the market in an unconventional way. It worked. The military embraced it first, then President Reagan read and praised it. Which meant every CO of every American military base read it. Word of mouth spread to the general public, and Clancy’s career was launched.

Jim Butcher admired the novels of Laurell K. Hamilton back in the fledgling days of urban fantasy. He wanted very much to emulate what she was doing, yet he came up with his own unique spin by inventing a wizard private detective. He combined noir mystery with fantasy, and forged a successful path for himself.

Alexander McCall Smith spent many years living in Botswana. After returning to Scotland, he created a female detective called Precious Ramotswe, the first lady PI in her community. Her cases are entwined with philosophical musings and ethical dilemmas; that, plus the African setting, are unlike anything else out there. Smith’s fans are now legion.

If any of these authors had allowed fear or doubt to hold them back, think of our loss.

I realize a lot of writing advice–mine included–focuses on the market, its ever-changing trends, and what editors or readers want. That’s necessary but writers also have to be willing to take risks and write what lies inside them. It is never easy. It can be downright scary, but even so, we have to trust ourselves and our innate story sense.

As for fear of the writing itself … years ago, I tried to coach a student with considerable talent, but she had made up her mind that every word she wrote had to be perfect. She was determined that her “first novel” be of bestseller quality. Now any writer should know that a first draft is a rough draft. It’s not precious. It’s not perfect. It will undergo many changes, tweaks, or rewrites before it’s ready to put before the public. Stubbornly, however, she clung to her fear of failure. She clung so hard that she could not accept constructive criticism or feedback of any kind. She wrote one chapter and quit, driven away by her fear of writing anything she perceived to be a mistake.

My view is, how can you ever learn or improve if you’re afraid to make mistakes? You have to try, fall short, try again, still fall short, keep trying in new ways, until you master it.

Years ago, I watched my small puppy try to climb the back porch steps. He happened to be a problem-solving breed, independent and stubborn. He made up his doggie mind that he would climb those steps. But his legs were too short. He could stretch enough to place his front paws on the bottom step, but he couldn’t wiggle the rest of himself onto it. So he would jump and jump with his hindquarters, to no avail. Except the following week–still trying–he got a hind foot on the step and was up. He had grown a little bigger and a little stronger. He immediately reached for the second step of three, and fell through the gap in the boards. Once he regained his breath from that thump, he went at it again. My point is that he never gave up until he mastered those steps. He was not afraid to fail, and he stuck with his objective until he achieved it.

When doubts sprout in your mind like weeds, what is their source? Is it the voice of some family member that has mocked you for even daring to dream of writing? Is it a memory of someone in a critique group that brutally eviscerated you in front of everyone? Is it your own inner critic at work–tearing you down psychologically before you have a chance to try?

Who–and what–holds you back?

And when–and how–will you break free?

As Franklin D. Roosevelt so famously said in his first inaugural address:  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

 

 

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Wrapping Up

As we move through the final days of this year, some of us may be lurching along in post-holiday stupor while others are still riding the endorphins of shopping-rush. Then there are the well-ordered, organized souls who are balancing checking accounts, writing donation checks, purchasing tax-deductible items, or shopping for new cars while pre-inventory prices are rock bottom.

When it comes to creating fiction, do you consider yourself a lurching, euphoric, or organized writer?

Let’s narrow the topic further by examining how stories reach their conclusions. Some, you see, are written with a dramatically definitive ending. Others simply stop. And yet others fade, leaving readers to flip back through the last two or three pages, checking numbers to see if the last page has been torn out.

Lurching to a stop:
The lurchers of fiction tend to open with some sort of very exciting hook and a rapid plunge into story action. When that event plays out, the story’s momentum slows or even stalls until the writer thinks up another exciting event to happen next. The story jolts forward, only to slow once more, then picks up again. Story action tends to be rough and feels tacked together (which it is). The conclusion may not make a lot of sense dramatically, but it will be exciting and packed with action, usually putting the protagonist into dire danger.

Generally, there’s the effect of a rushed, incomplete finale. Questions raised within the plot may or may not be answered to reader satisfaction. Some are often forgotten or overlooked.

Because the writers of lurching stories tend to be pantsers instead of planners, the general effect of this approach is slap-dash. It may work … somehow, despite itself … but it may not. It’s a reckless way to write, and it runs the risk of leaving readers dissatisfied with how the story is finished.

Euphoria, Hysteria, and Froth!
The story that relies on its writer’s emotions alone focuses on characters more than plot. How the characters feel propels their motivations, complexities, and actions–although they may not do very much more than make tea and think a great deal about problems that are never actually dramatized on the page.

And while some lovely introspective stories have been published–THE NUMBER ONE LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY by Alexander McCall Smith, for example–an inept or inexperienced writer can float, mull, and philosophize her way into a muddle.

Muddled stories tend to end up trapped in corners, with the writer unsure of how to back out. Therefore, they may simply stop with the protagonist waving tearfully to her lover as he catches his train and is borne away from her.

But is this the end? readers then wonder. How does it work out? Are they parting forever? Is she just going to stand there and weep? Will he come back? Is my book defective and missing the last chapter? How does this thing end?

As writers, we can ache for our beleaguered characters. We can grieve for them, worry over them, cry because of them, but we shouldn’t leave readers asking any of the above questions. It’s possible to finish stories plausibly and conclusively, tying up the loose ends and resolving the main plotline, without sacrificing one droplet of emotional potential.

The Organized Climax:
O.R.G.A.N.I.Z.E.D.

When one’s artistic soul is pulsating in the raw throes of creation, “organized” is an unpleasant, off-putting word. There’s no glamour to the term organized. It possesses no zing, no zip, no bling, and certainly no appeal. It’s mundane and boring–positively nauseatingly dull. It carries the connotations of hard work, discipline, labor, planning, and drudgery. Rest assured, there is no fun to be had from organized anything.

Or so says the imagination.

Yet the imagination is a lazy trickster that is not always truthful.

Bringing your story to a dramatically satisfying, exciting, intense, enthralling, cathartic conclusion takes planning, thought, and hard work. It should never be drudgery, but it’s seldom easy. If we writers do our jobs well, our stories take readers through the agony of near defeat and the relief of a logical, but unexpected reversal. Loose ends are tied up. The questions are answered. Characters get what they deserve–either good or bad. The story is finished. Readers aren’t left hanging. They’re satisfied because the story has taken them on an emotional journey and delivered the full, entertaining experience it promised.

When you sit down to write your next story, know where you want it to end before you write the beginning. Don’t lurch, leap, and contrive your way there. Think the plot events through so that your protagonist takes logical steps from start to finish. Or if your protagonist’s emotions carry her away from the story goal in pursuit of some tangent, take the time to delete that version and put her back on the path you intend her to follow.

Remember, it’s always the writer’s responsibility to wrap up a story dramatically to the reader’s satisfaction.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Reading Potato Chips

Today I broke away from my computer and headed off to the local bookstore. I had three books on my list. One was Jim Butcher’s latest–SKIN GAME. The other two were baby books–GOODNIGHT MOON and something with LLAMA in the title.

I had a yard-long list of errands to run today. My plan was to whip into Barnes & Noble, grab the books, and whip out.

Ha! Like that was going to happen.

There’s a reason I don’t let always let myself browse in bookstores. Today, despite my hurry, once I hit the board book section (“Books for Little Hands”), I was a goner.

Years ago, I collected picture books. I sought out certain illustrators and went for the lavish, ornate ones. Before I knew it, I had a whole bookcase full of these marvelous stories. Eventually I moved to a house where there just wasn’t space for them. With great reluctance, I pared down my picture books to a cherished few and donated the rest to an elementary school.

Today, well aware of the pitfalls in the picture book section, I headed straight for the board books like a race horse wearing blinders. (Do not walk by the picture books. Do not check out the new arrivals in the YA section. Don’t peek at the middle-grade stories. No, no, no!)

I didn’t even have to scan the board book spines. The Llama books and GOODNIGHT MOON were prominently displayed as the bestsellers they are.

Now, I’m fully aware that GOODNIGHT MOON has been captivating kids forever. It’s mega-popular, and all new parents-to-be request it. It’s probably been read at more bedtimes than any other twentieth-century story I can think of.

Alas, I’ve never cared for it.

That’s not to disparage the book. It wasn’t written for me. I know it has huge appeal for its intended readership. Even so, I plucked it from the shelf, glanced at its pages, read its gentle text, and then put it back on the shelf. Why? I wasn’t buying it for me. All I had to do was buy it as a gift and be done.

But no … I next picked up a book that I used to own as a picture book. Even abridged for the board-book set, THE NAPPING HOUSE remains charming. Once I peeked inside, I was lost. I forgot my long list of errands. I forgot time. I had to look at more!

I browsed through little books about freight trains and dump trucks and caterpillars and polar bears and dancing hippos. I looked at puppy books and counting books and books with plots. I skimmed through books with colors and books with concepts but no words.

A friend of mine had told me PRIDE AND PREJUDICE was now in board-book format. It’s a counting book, very clever.

But I also found ROMEO AND JULIET. Really? And, perhaps most astonishing of all, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. For babies? Come on!

I had to open it, and it was all dark, brooding gothic illustrations and single-word pages. For example, one spread had a dark silhouette of a grandfather clock on the left page and huge bold letters on the right, spelling out “Ticking.” It wasn’t an abridgment of the story. It was just concepts.

Weird.

I didn’t look at ROMEO AND JULIET, but now my curiosity is afire and I wish I had.

Of course, I realize that these adult classic tales have been designed to delight the parent or grandparent or fond auntie who will buy it and present it to an eleven-month-old who could care less.

Even so. I was suddenly glad to go back to weighing the merits of THE RUNAWAY BUNNY versus a charming tale about a giraffe who learned to boogie.

Before I knew it, an hour had flown by. I had a hefty stack in my hands because how do you stop with just one of these charmers?

Problem was, I needed one gift, not a dozen. But buying books is like eating potato chips. How do you stop?

With great reluctance, I finally made my choice. I pushed my way out of the kids’ department, yet somehow on the way to the checkout stand I happened to walk past the mystery section. All the new cozies were faced out. Puns for titles were in full array.

Did I want to read about cat mysteries, dog rescue mysteries, or home improvement mysteries? What about mysteries set in libraries, quilt stores, knitting stores, coffee shops or bakeries? Did I fancy a new Alan Bradley or any of the new Alexander McCall Smith titles? What about Walter Mosley or James Lee Burke? I wanted them all!

Can you tell that I’ve been just a wee bit bookstore deprived lately?

I went in with a list of three titles. I came out with a sack-load of eight, along with the names of several authors unknown to me that I want to investigate further.

Where does it stop? How does it end?

When the checkbook–and the potato chip bag–are empty.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized