Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Google Books

I find it hard to believe that the blogosphere isn't humming with Google's opening of its own ebookstore. Nary a mention on any of the writing lists I follow either. Maybe I dreamed it last night and it doesn't exist...

I just checked. Yup. It's really there. Have ebooks become so common now that no one cares about this? Or with all the holiday preparations has it just slipped under the radar?

It offers similar functionality to other ebook sites with support for reading on the Web, the iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch, Nook, Sony and Android devices. Notice the lack of Kindle support. Another feature unique to Google Books is its partnership with independent bookstores for sales. I'm not exactly sure how this will work. I haven't dug into the store that deeply to see if you can choose to buy a book from your local independent, thus giving them a cut, or it means you can buy an ebook from Google in a bookstore and they get the credit.

I wasn't particularly impressed with the presentation. Amazon still has the best search engine if you're looking for a book and can't quite remember the title or author. I'm a Nook user, so I'm used to using the B&N site for most of my buying, although I've downloaded from manybooks as well. I did check one book on Google Books that's been on my wishlist, just to compare pricing. Amazon and B&N tend to be about equal, with Amazon often being a few cents cheaper. I was amazed that the Google price for my wishlist book was several dollars higher than B&N. No incentive there.

In Googling Google Books (that looks incestuous somehow), I see a hot off the presses news release that Amazon is going to partner with other merchants for sales of Kindle books. It's a little murky as to what this means. One sentence in the article appears to say this will allow it to be included in Google Books. A few sentences more and it says it will partner with independents. I guess I'll have to wait until tomorrow to see what this means.

Competition just has to be good for the ebook market. I'd seriously like to see publishers get the idea that ebooks should not be more expensive than paperbacks.

Well, on to writing tonight. I mean, other than this blog.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Book Review: The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

It was with great irony and chagrin that I began this book, only to find that it, too, opens with a prologue. After my minor rant about prologues in my last review and my smug feeling that an author of the caliber of Dennis Lehane would know better, there one was.

There was a difference, however. This prologue was marvelous and I was swept up in the story, told by Babe Ruth, of an impromptu baseball game between members of the Red Sox, White Sox and a Negro team. The language was, as always from Lehane, wonderful and the emotions compelling. There's the initial joy of playing baseball with some great players, followed by the tension of the major leaguers's pride being damaged, the racial perspective as the Negro players go from equals to submissive, and Babe Ruth's shame at the way the whole situation ends. This prologue could stand on its own as a short story. But did it need to be a prologue? I'll get to that later.

This is a story of America after the First World War, primarily in Boston, but also in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We follow the parallel stories of Luther Laurence, one of the Negro ballplayers in the prologue, and Aiden "Danny" Coughlin, a Boston policeman. Babe Ruth puts in a couple of minor appearances throughout the book as well. I loved the insight into a time before I was born from the points of view of characters I cared about. Somehow I never knew how hard conditions were such a short time before my own lifetime.

Luther, in love with Lila, is convinced to move to Tulsa by her and finds a whole different way of life than what he's been used to. Negros (and I'm using the term because that was what they were called back then) had fine houses and businesses. They were lawyers and doctors as well as domestic help. True, it was in a separate part of town from the whites, but it showed Luther that life could be richer than he'd imagined.

Danny is from a family of Irish Catholic police officers. His father is a captain on the Boston Police Force and his friends are policemen. He falls in love with Nora, a poor Irish immigrant whom his father found shivering and starving soon after she got off the boat and brought home to be cook and housekeeper.

Luther, feeling restless and hemmed in by being a husband with a pregnant wife, forced to conform to a way of life he's not sure he wants, gets involved with alcohol, drugs and prostitution. He has to leave town after committing murder and winds up in Boston, getting a job as houseman at Danny's father's house.

The tale of these two men, who become fast friends, is told against the backdrop of the political and social unrest of the times. There are Bolsheviks and anarchists who must be controlled, the Great Molasses Flood, and the Boston Police strike. I was most surprised by the conditions the BPD had to work under at that time. They were paid less than janitors for the city, worked 72 hour shifts, had little time off, and the stations were safety and health nightmares. And yet they were expected to live with this proudly because they had taken an oath to protect and serve.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, Dennis Lehane is a master of storytelling and language and I enjoyed the experience of reading large sections of it. On the other hand, it was very long and there were times I got tired of reading it. In particular, there was one section in the middle of the book where I had to struggle to get through it. I did, however, derive some satisfaction from knowing that even Dennis Lehane has trouble with "the saggy middle" at times. I also was impatient to get through the ending of the book. While the violence of the Boston Police strike is the climax of the story, it didn't draw me in as much as other aspects of the book. If I hadn't been so close to the end, I might have stopped reading.

As always with Dennis Lehane, the world does not have purely happy endings. There are positive notes, but you're left with the feeling that life is hard and full of dark shadows. Moral choices have undesired consequences. His writing is real, so if you're looking for happily ever after, you won't find it here. But if you want a world and characters that will stay with you long after you've finished the book, you can't go wrong with The Given Day or any of his other works.

And about that prologue? I don't think it needed to be a prologue at all, especially since the book ends as it begins, with Babe Ruth telling his story as he arrives in New York after being traded to the Yankees. It probably should have been chapter one or the ending should have been an epilogue to balance things out.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Future of Writing

Anyone who is involved with writing books or publishing them is aware of the dramatic changes since ereaders became a viable option. We can thank Amazon and the Kindle for that, although I prefer and own a Nook. Publishers are running scared, not only because of the economy, but because authors don't need them to publish an ebook. J.A. Konrath has been a primary proponent of authors self-pubbing via ebook and leaving traditional publishers behind. Even Norman Spinrad has decided to go the epub route.

I think publishers have good reason to worry. The irony of it all is that they've largely done it to themselves. There are fewer books being published and most of those are by proven bestselling authors. The midlist, those books that sell moderate quantities consistently, is being all but eliminated. Taking a chance on a new writer? It's not done very much. Patience to grow that writer is rare. And promotion? Hah! Authors are now expected to pay for that and organize it on their own. Sometimes an agent or publisher wants to see a marketing plan along with the book.

Is it any wonder that writers, some of whom have spent years trying to find an agent and a publisher, are opting to epub their books themselves? Online writing groups can provide the critiques and editing that publishers formerly did. Promotion is largely through social media rather than print ads and book tours. And distribution is via wi-fi at your local Starbucks. So what purpose will the major publishers serve in this brave new world?

Oh, I don't think books will ever totally go away. Heck, even vinyl hasn't disappeared entirely. (Vinyl records have a much richer sound than CDs or MP3s. Ask any musician.) But when was the last time you--or more importantly your kids--bought a CD? Even most of my recent music purchases have been generally through iTunes. I'm not even saying that's a bad thing.

I'm a fan of what used to be called folk music, but is sometimes referred to as singer-songwriter. There have been a few revivals since the 60s and 70s, but it's been mostly a niche market with very little chance for the musicians to get a record contract with one of the major labels. The technology that enabled these musicians to record their own CDs at a reasonable price changed things. I could go to a local coffee house (lots of those in the Boston area), hear a performer and decide if I liked him or her enough to buy a CD to take home with me. You've probably never heard of Cheryl Wheeler or Garnet Rogers, but I have all their CDs (now loaded on my iPod).

My question was always what would be the equivalent of the try-before-you-buy of a coffee house concert? Amazon and Barnes and Noble have answered that one with the free first chapter for ebooks. Then how do you choose which first chapters to try out? I suppose it's the same way as which coffee house you decide to go to on a Saturday night. A friend says, "Hey, Don White is playing at the Me and Thee coffeehouse in Marblehead. We should go see him. He's great!" In other words, word of mouth. I see that the SinC survey confirms this, even for paper books.

The difference is that musicians are, by nature of what they do, performers. They like going in front of an audience and putting their art out there. They use the feedback of the audience to know which songs are good and which are not so good. Writers are not generally performers or marketers of their own work. (Forget James Patterson.) A lot of us are not very good at reading our books at bookstore signings. Even Robert B Parker gave a perfunctory reading when I went to see him. (Although he was a great speaker.) And will there be bookstore signings when most books are bought in electronic format?

I think traditional publishing will still exist in some format in the future. There's still a cachet about being through that tortuous process of submission and rejection and revision to finally make it through to published book. I will admit to a fantasy of holding a hardcover edition of my book, published by an imprint of one of the Big Six, in my hands. But there's no longer a stigma attached to publishing your own book electronically.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Book Review: Forget Me Not by Vicki Hinze

Disclaimer: This book, which is an inspirational romantic suspense, is not a genre I usually read. Most of the inspirational fiction I've read is not as well written as the traditional mysteries I prefer. I'm also not a fan of romance because it seems to me that there's only one plot in a romance. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl. Or reverse the boy and girl in those sentences. So why did I read this book? See the end of this post.

The book opens with a prologue, a confrontation between an unnamed woman and a man named Gregory Chessman. I've heard that prologues have fallen out of style, that agents and editors hate them and that most readers skip them, preferring to get to Chapter 1 and the meat of the story. I'm not one who skips them, but I need to feel that they're essential to the story and I need them to be memorable enough that when they finally hook up with the main plot line, I have an "aha" moment. I didn't remember this one. In fact, I just had to scan it again to bring back what it was about. In my opinion, it could have been omitted and not affected the story at all.

Chapter One opens with another unnamed woman (or is it the same one and this is a scene prior to the the prologue?) who is on the phone arguing with her financial adviser about the offer on her deceased aunt's beach cottage. The adviser wants her to sell. She's reluctant because it was the one happy place in her childhood. He also tells her she's been found again. With this, we learn that she is on the run from a terrorist group, Nihilists in Anarchy, or NINA for short. We also learns that she prays about her decisions and trusts in God.

With the setup in place, the protagonist is subsequently carjacked, hit on the head, overcome by the smell of some chemicals and wakes up with amnesia. She doesn't remember who she is or where she is. All she is sure of is her faith. In her pocket is a card that says Crossroads on one side and Susan on the back. When she learns that she's in Florida close to the town of Seagrove Village, she knows that she doesn't want to be there. She doesn't remember why, but she convinces the man who found her not to take her to a hospital, but instead to the Crossroads Crisis Center, where there is less likelihood of her situation--and her presence--being reported.

When she arrives at the Crossroads Crisis Center, she learns that Susan is not her name, but the name of the founder of the center, to whom she bears a strong resemblance, and the deceased wife of Ben, who lost his faith when his wife and son were killed.

The author leads us on a rollercoaster ride of danger and plots and insinuations throughout the book, along with the developing romance between our variously named heroine and Ben. Despite my bias against the genre, I found myself swept up in the story and wanting to find out who were the bad guys and who were the good guys and why they were threatening the heroine and those who were trying to help her. I also found the faith theme well done, if predictable.

On the other hand, there were some coincidences, particularly toward the end of the book, that stretched credulity. I also found the secondary characters thinly drawn, with very little to distinguish them from one another.

One question I always ask myself when I finish a book by a new-to-me author is would I read another book by this author? The answer in this case is definitely yes. Not right away (I still haven't read Dennis Lehane's The Given Day and Moonlight Mile was released this past week), but perhaps when the sequel to this book is published in February.

Why I read this book: My dream is to be a published author. When my current WIP turned out to be a lot more inspirational that I ever imagined it would be, I started having concerns about its saleability. It's not the warm, cuddly sort of book that I associated with Christian fiction. On the other hand, there's an awful lot of Christianity in it for a mainstream mystery. When I mentioned my concerns to another member of my RWA chapter, she told me that my book wasn't necessarily too edgy for the Christian market. She also told me about agent Steve Laube, who is based in nearby Phoenix. Curious as to whether I might actually fit into a niche and whether Steve Laube might be an agent I should contact when I'm ready to start submitting my book, I made a list of his clients. This list included Vicki Hinze, who seems to have quite a favorable reputation as an author and writing teacher. And that's why I chose to read this book.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

No NaNo For Me

It didn't take me long to bail out on doing NaNoWriMo this year. Three days, as a matter of fact. Maybe four.

I started Monday evening with a burst of enthusiasm. I put my iPod in my Bose dock and started playing the movie soundtracks I'd downloaded over the weekend. It was easy for me to get more than 1667 words in under two hours.

Tuesday was a bit more difficult.

I'm a plotter by nature, spending weeks thinking about characters and plot points and subplots. I have a big black posterboard on my wall with index cards of characters attached to it. Oh, yeah, and the pitch sentence for my current WIP. For that novel, I'm using Scrivener and had my virtual index cards with scene titles all laid out before I wrote the first word. I'd also done character sketches in a notebook, bookmarked web sites with maps and pictures of settings, and clipped newspaper articles relating to the border problem that's a large part of the plot for that book.

And how much planning had I done for my NaNo novel? (Jeopardy theme here.) Zilch! I'd come up with a basic plot idea and a few characters and a "feeling" about what I wanted the book to be like. I often start this way. But (see above) I then spend at least a couple of months noodling this stuff around in my head, writing about it in my journal, poking around the Internet for background material.

But hey!, isn't No Plot, No Problem what NaNo's all about? So I pushed on Tuesday night, hoping to write my way into a story. I kept going, checking my word count every few minutes. When I reached a point where I'd written exactly 1667 words, I quit.

Wednesday I went to a meeting and was too tired afterwords to work on NaNoWriMo. I didn't panic. It was early in the month and weren't weekends for catching up?

Thursday I hit a wall. Every word was agony. After about 150 words, I sat back in my chair and thought about this. Why was I doing NaNo this year?

Because everybody else was. Well, not everybody, but a lot of people I know were doing it. In the back of my head I heard my father's voice. And if everybody jumped off a bridge, would you jump, too? Okay, so that wasn't a great reason.

It's fun! Actually, no, it wasn't. Not this year.

I started doing NaNoWriMo six years ago. I had already spent several years going from not writing at all to Morning Pages to writing classes to trying to write a novel. It was hard and I had a vicious inner editor, although I didn't know that was my problem at the time. NaNo gave me the freedom to write 50,000 words of crap, but to actually get something of length written. It freed me from that mandate to be perfect that my father had instilled in me. I was able to write, even if it wasn't very good.

Thursday night I realized that I've grown past the need to quash my inner editor. I don't need word wars or the Paper Bag of Destiny or plot bunnies to get me to write. And that spending the month of November writing a NaNo novel would be taking 30 days away from revisions of the novel I hope has some chance of actually being published.

I will forever be grateful to NaNoWriMo for helping me to get rid of that inner editor and allowing me to write shitty first drafts. And, if the stars align and some year in the future I have those character sketches and scenes titles and research web sites all ready to go on November 1st, I'll happily use NaNoWriMo to write the first draft of another novel.

But this year, no NaNo for me.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

NaNoWriMo

It's that time of year again. No, I don't mean when the leaves turn and you start thinking about Thanksgiving and Christmas and travel plans and spending time with family. In two days, November starts, which means it's time for another year of NaNoWriMo.

I've done NaNo so many times, I start salivating at the very thought of another month of writing abandon. I can't tell you how many times I've sworn I'm not going to do it. I don't have time for this silliness. I have a full-time job and my serious writing to work on. How am I ever going to get published if I take a whole month to write a stream of consciousness storyline that hasn't been thoroughly planned out, isn't in the genres I want to publish, and will leave me too exhausted to work on my "real" novel.

But it's useless. Sometime during October, the posts on the writing loops I subscribe to start. Who's doing NaNo? someone asks. A few people respond, slowly, dipping their toes in the craziness one more time. What's NaNo? a newbie will ask. And more people will rush to explain what this is, how thousands of people all over the world start typing at midnight on November 1st, with the intention of writing a 50,000 word novel by the time November 30th is over with. Every day more people say they're doing it and I start to get the feeling that if I don't participate, I'll be missing out on one of the biggest parties ever thrown. By the end of October, I can't help myself. I'm swept up in the tsunami of crazed writers, stockpiling coffee and chocolate and frozen dinners. Even Nathan Bransford, a respected agent, has blogged on how to do NaNoWriMo this week. See, no one's immune!

So here I am, only a vague idea of a plot and some characters, but with some new movie soundtracks downloaded to my iPod for inspiration and a fresh report card all ready for Monday to start recording my progress in this year's race to 50,000 words, terrified that I'll run out of things to say after two or three days, but knowing that somehow I always come up with something to write in the end.

Hello, my name is Elise, and I'm a NaNo-holic.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Cabin Fever

You usually think of three day blizzards and ice storms that shut down roads and cause tree limbs to crash through power lines when you hear the phrase cabin fever. That is, if you live in northerly climes. Here in Tucson, cabin fever strikes in the first weeks of July, when the humidity rolls in and the heat hasn't broken yet from the monsoon storms. After a month of 100 degree plus temperatures, you're tired of going from your air conditioned home to your air conditioned car to get to your air conditioned office with only brief sprints in the sultry air to traverse the distances between those points.

You gaze through the windows at the mountains and the desert trails, longing to walk through them, but knowing the actuality is not as pleasant as the picture postcard images. Yard work suffers as even the early morning low temperatures hover around eighty. It will get cooler soon, you tell yourself.

You keep your eyes on the sky, looking for the building clouds that will bring rain and relief. Too often what clouds are there are only a tease. They build up. You may even hear a rumble of thunder. The news reports fires started by lightning strikes in the mountains. But there isn't any rain. The air is so dry that even if drops start to fall from those clouds, they're likely to evaporate before reaching the levels where men can feel them.

And so you wait, huddled behind walls in the machine-produced coolness, staring out longingly at the great out of doors, dreaming of the joys of winter, when you can go outside again and enjoy Arizona while the rest of the country is suffering from a cabin fever of their own.