Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book Review: The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

Last week I was reading a post by Mary Saums on the Femmes Fatales blog in which she mentioned a couple of books that sounded like they might interest me. Because I have so many books in my TBR queue and I'm trying not to spend money on more books, I downloaded samples to my nook to read before deciding whether to buy one of these or not.

Before I finished reading the sample of The Crossing Places, I'd already made up my mind to buy the full book. My finger did pause over the confirmation for just a few seconds because the price was $9.99 and I don't believe in paying more than the price of a paperback for an ebook, but it was only for a few seconds. The writing was that good.

This is a British mystery in the tradition of the classics. It is heavy in atmosphere, the dreary, rainy Saltmarsh enveloping the reader in mystery and obscuring the facts in mist. The heroine, Ruth Galloway, is a forensic archaeologist but, more than that, she's a real person. She's overweight, approaching middle age, and single. She's an independent loner, but has connections to some interesting characters.

Her counterpart, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, is also believable. He isn't the bumbling policeman who needs the help of an amateur to solve the murders. He's a competent professional seeking the advice of an expert. And yet there's an attraction to Ruth, despite the fact that DCI Nelson is happily married to a beautiful woman.

Past and present are linked through the burial sites found around the ancient henge on the Saltmarsh. Echos of the pagan gods are reinforced by the beliefs of and reverence for the site by the caped Cathbart and Ruth's mentor, Eric.

This was a book I could not put down for very long. It cast a spell and kept calling me back until I finished it. Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Those Surprising Republicans

-->Maybe it's because I grew up twenty miles from the New York City line, where you're just as likely to run into a Jew or an atheist as a Christian, but the popularity of first Newt Gingrich and now Rick Santorum, with their conservative Christian beliefs, is somewhat surprising to me.
That's not to say that there wasn't a predominantly Christian orientation in my younger years. I remember when the words "under God" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s. I had just entered school and learned the pledge, only to have it changed the next year. I struggled to remember the new wording. And no one had a problem with Christmas decorations or saying "Merry Christmas" or calling the spring school break Easter vacation.
But even by the time I got to junior high school (what's now called middle school), I was somewhat surprised that we said the Lord's Prayer at the beginning of school assemblies. I remember sneaking peeks at my Jewish friends to see if they were reciting the words as well. They were. I'm not sure they realized it was Christian. These were the years when Madalyn Murray O'Hair  and the American Atheists were making headlines with their lawsuits about religion in the schools. I was very aware of issues of religious freedom.

In the intervening decades, American society has become more politically correct and divorced from religion. Respect for those of other faiths--and no faith--has led to almost an embarrassment when any mention of a particular belief comes up in daily conversation. Church attendance has dwindled.

On the other hand, the religious beliefs of American presidents have always been of concern to the American public. With the Protestant history of the founding fathers, it was expected that the President would attend some church on a regular basis. When John F. Kennedy was elected as the first Catholic president, there were (unfounded) concerns as to whether he would be taking direction from the Vatican. More recently, there was the brouhaha over whether Barack Obama was Muslim or Christian. Always there was the expectation that, while a President would have a belief system that would guide him in his daily life, he (or she) would not allow those beliefs to impinge on the rights and beliefs of any other American citizen.

Until now. Both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are conservative Christians and favor political policies that would make law their personal religious beliefs. Specifically I'm thinking of their opinions on birth control and abortion and gay rights.
 
Now, my beliefs tend to align with theirs. I believe that "normal" marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman. But I have a friend who is in a committed gay relationship. I don't believe he and his partner are the spawn of Satan. Emotionally, I believe life begins at conception. My gut tells me that abortion is the taking of a human life. But there are plenty of arguments for life beginning at a different stage in the development of a new human being.

I'm not so certain of my beliefs in these areas that I think we have the right to mandate that those with different beliefs be subject to them. Maybe that's a failing on my part.
What I find surprising is that not only do we have two candidates who believe that they can mandate their beliefs as the law of the land, there are apparently a large number of American citizens who believe the same way based on the most recent Republican primary results.  And this didn't happen in the Bible Belt. These results came from Colorado and Minnesota as well as Missouri.

I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, I find it encouraging that there's a resurgence in Christian belief. It's encouraging that people are willing to stand up for these beliefs after so many years of keeping quiet. On the other hand, I find the idea of imposing one group's beliefs on the whole country disconcerting.  Where do you draw the line?

Outlawing abortion is, in my opinion, the same as mandating that Catholic employers supply insurance coverage for it. In both cases it's the government insisting that a value be supported by those who do not believe in it. Now, we do this all the time. Murder is illegal in all states because we, as a nation, believe that murder is wrong. States mandate that their residents pay taxes to support public education because we believe that education is right and necessary. 

I suppose that there are some who believe that murder should be legal and that education isn't necessary. I don't propose legalizing murder or closing the schools because of that.

But if a gay couple gets married, who do they hurt?

I don't have the answers to these questions. Heck, I'm not sure I even have the questions. What I do have is a general malaise over the government's right to intrude in people's personal lives and belief systems. 

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Book Review: Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane

It was over ten years between the publication of Prayers for Rain and this final book in the Kenzie-Gennaro mystery series. I remember going to a book signing, probably for Shutter Island, at the Borders in Braintree, Massachusetts many years ago. The question that was asked first and that was foremost in Dennis Lehane's readers's minds was "When are you going to write another Kenzie-Gennaro mystery?"

The disappointment in the store was palpable when he answered, "When they tell me there's another story to tell. So far, they haven't been speaking to me."

Although most people will think of Mystic River when they hear the name of Dennis Lehane, mystery readers had discovered him years before through this literary mystery series. When I read A Drink Before the War, the first book in the series, I was most impressed with the characters. Good guys weren't all good. Bad guys weren't all bad. The people who populate Lehane's Boston are complex, with ribbons of good and evil lacing through their personalities. They're people you could actually know, not idealized characters in a novel. Well, except maybe for Bubba.

Ten years later, reading Moonlight Mile was like coming home and finding the people you knew and remembered fondly still there; a little older, but still the people you remember. I'm not going to go into the details of the plot. You can read the summary on Barnes and Noble or Goodreads or Amazon. The case from Gone, Baby, Gone comes back to haunt them one more time. There's unfinished business there, which we all felt when we finished the book, but we learned to live with the ambiguity over the years.

There have been a lot of reviews criticizing Lehane for having the characters change from what they were ten years ago. I think the criticism is unwarranted. Patrick and Angie have gotten older. They have a house and a child and responsibilities. They've matured just like they would have if they were real people. You can't expect people to take the risks and live the crazy lifestyle of their youth as they age. Not that there isn't plenty of risk and action in this book. The difference is Patrick worries about the risks he takes, the consequences to his family if he fails. And that's what a man with responsibilities would do.

I found this a very satisfying end to this series. I hope Dennis Lehane can come up with a new book to rival it for his next work.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Learning to Write

I've been ignoring this blog lately. It's not because I don't enjoy blogging--far from it. I've learned that I have to make some hard choices if I want to reach my goal. In case you're new here, that goal is to be a published author of multiple books. I've been pursuing that goal for the better part of ten years. Ten years? Yes.

Half the people in the world want to write a book--or so it seems. Everyone has stories to tell. Lots of people believe that they could write a book as good as any on the bestseller list if they just had the time to sit down and do it. Reality is somewhat different.

A new writer, full of enthusiasm and dreams of making the rounds of talk shows talking about her book, sits at her computer and rapidly types up thirty or forty pages of the story she's been thinking about. That's where most beginners run into a wall and find out this writing thing isn't quite as simple as it sounds. Lots of people quit at this point, some telling themselves they'll get back to their novel when they take their vacation or after the kids are back in school or after the holidays. Most never get back to it.

If New Writer does complete the book, she's sure it's wonderful and can't wait to get an agent, a publisher, and a multi-book contract. She might give a copy to her mother or best friend to read, who will tell her it's a wonderful story--even if it isn't. When the form rejections, or, worse, no response at all, come back from her queries, she moans about the gatekeepers of publishing.

If she's smart, she'll find a critique group or join a writers' organization like Romance Writers of America or Sisters in Crime. She'll learn that her experience isn't unique. She'll learn about writing craft. She'll get honest feedback that will tell her that she needs to do more work before her book is ready for publication. Because the book on the page doesn't match the story she had in her head.

I don't know about other writers, but I tend to visualize scenes from my novels as movies in my head, complete with swelling orchestral themes at the climax. Because I've seen the movie and lived with my characters for months on end, what I've put on the page is clear to me. Readers, like those in my critique group, sometimes have lots of questions because they don't have the same experience. You know you've grown a lot as a writer when you read what you wrote and despair because it doesn't match the beautiful story you dreamed in your head. You've learned to see your story as others see it.

There is so much to learn about writing. Even bestselling authors are still learning their craft years after being published. When you start out, you have no idea how much you don't know. Personally, I started with plot. I mean, there's no story if you don't have a plot, right? And the reason so many writers quit after the first forty pages is that they have no idea what the plot is that brings them from that opening to the climax at the end of the book. So you study the three act structure and the four act structure and the hero's journey and buy books on the nine or thirty plots (depending on which book you read) and get an idea of what kind of plot your story has.

Then there's character. You have to have character sheets, lists of physical and psychological descriptions of the people in your book. You spend days figuring out their favorite foods, what their house looks like, what skills they have, what mannerisms, and on and on and on. And you learn how to work those into your writing so you have more than action figures moving through your story.

And dialogue. You start paying attention to how people talk. You eavesdrop on other people's conversations in restaurants. You read your dialogue out loud and wonder if it sounds natural.

After you think you've got most of that down, you start worrying about grammar and punctuation. You start listening to Grammar Girl's podcast, buy a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk and White, and obsess about whether you need a comma or not.

At this point, you think you've improved so much that you're ready to push your baby out into the world again. You enter a contest or two. You send out new queries with sample pages. The good news is that you have improved. You know that because the rejections come back with a personalized note about what isn't working. Your contest scores are higher. But you didn't get a request for a partial or full manuscript and you weren't a finalist in the contests. You're still not there yet.

I'm a firm believer in mentors. You can only learn so much from reading books or studying another author's writing. Books give you guidelines of what usually works. Other writers may have a beautiful style, a unique voice (whatever that means), but they're not you. A mentor is someone who has been down this path before and can take those guidelines and show you how they apply to your work. They can evaluate where you are in your process and help you move to the next level. They are unique and treasured individuals. Like most treasures, they're hard to find.

Last year I took Holly Lisle's How to Think Sideways class. I'd heard lots of good things about Holly and her classes and thought that the cost of the class would be worth it if I could find that mentor to help me get to the next level. I didn't expect a lot of personal attention, but I was hoping for some.

It didn't work for me. Part of the problem was that Holly ran into a slew of personal and health problems that interrupted the class. My impression of Holly is that she's a workaholic who drives herself to exhaustion, until her body breaks down and forces her to rest. This results in bursts of enormous output (sometimes too much output), followed by periods of none. It made for a very rocky class.

Another problem was that shortly after the class got started, Holly "discovered" self-publishing. I kind of laughed because I'd been reading the blogs of Joe Konrath and Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rousch and Passive Guy for at least six months before Holly found John Locke's book and got excited about the possibilities. This caused another break in the class as her priority became to self-publish her backlist and start earning the majority of her living from writing new fiction as opposed to her classes. I don't blame her for this. Writing is the way she earns her living and, if there's no income, she's not going to be able to eat or pay the rent or any of that other good stuff. But it did cause another break in the class as she focused on self-publishing and then revising and adding to the class to change how to get an agent and work with a publisher and the other aspects of traditional publishing into how to self-publish.

But, most of all, Holly and I think differently. Part of it is genre-related. Holly writes mostly fantasy and science fiction. I write mysteries. Her obsession with worldbuilding isn't one I have, so I don't need to learn how to limit it. She is artistic, expressing herself in drawing as much as writing. Me, I can't draw a straight line with a ruler. So where she's a big fan of clustering or the snowflake method or mindmapping, this doesn't really work for me. I do the same type of brainstorming, but I make lists instead. Although she says in her lessons that everyone has their own techniques, she keeps using hers (of course) and it was hard for me to relate to those methods.

So it was with great trepidation that I signed on with another well-known writing teacher for her January class. Margie Lawson is famous in writing circles, particularly romance, for teaching how to get to the next level. Since romance isn't my genre either (although there is some romance in my mysteries), I wasn't sure her classes would work for me any better than Holly Lisle's had. But, unlike Holly's six-month class, Margie's was only one month, a lot less expensive, and sounded like something I needed.

I think I might have found my mentor.

Margie is an enthusiastic teacher, upbeat and full of energy. (Okay, sometimes her energy and cheerfulness do make me tired just reading her lessons and comments!) She's consistent and reliable and managed to get me to do some things I didn't think were possible.

One of those things was to use fifteen minute intervals of time to do something related to my goal of being a writer. Since it takes time for me to get into writing mode, I've always thought that I needed at least two hours of uninterrupted time in order to accomplish anything. Because it was a class assignment to list things I could do in fifteen minutes and then do them, I tried it. I was surprised to find out that, while I couldn't write a part of a scene in fifteen minutes, I could do other things related to writing. This has helped me feel like I'm working harder on my goal because I'm accomplishing something toward it on a regular basis, even if I don't have two hours.

The other thing I learned was that I could get up earlier and work on my novel for an hour before going to my day job. I'm not a morning person. Back when I could, I was more likely to stay up until one or two AM and sleep until noon than get up early. Because employers frown on that schedule, I taught myself to get up earlier. In fact, I got up an hour before I needed to shower and dress so I could sip my coffee and write in my journal and wake up before starting my day. I told myself that I needed that hour to become human before doing anything.

But my plan of writing in the evening wasn't working for me. After a full day at work, the fatigue and stress weren't conducive to writing. I couldn't get in the zone then, despite there being two hours available. So I decided to try getting up a half hour earlier than I had been, skip the journaling, and go to my computer to work on my novel. Imagine my surprise when I found that I could do that. I may only write half a scene or revise a few paragraphs, but I'm making more consistent progress and I feel better about myself. I'm not flogging myself every evening that I don't get to my computer because I've already worked on my writing that day.

Changing my behavior includes spending less time blogging. I've been working on this entry for two hours, two hours that could have been spent writing another scene of my novel. I know that sounds like a lot of time for a short entry, but it takes me time to organize my thoughts, write them down, then go back and correct what I've written so it flows and makes sense. That's time I need to spend on other things--including working on the next Margie Lawson class assignments. Because finishing the book and getting it published is something I need to do. I'll get back to a regular blogging schedule when I have more time.