Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Book Review: The Lost Years by Mary Higgins Clark

Life is too short to read a bad book.

I generally like to finish what I start. I tend to fall asleep on movies, but I'll rewind them (do you rewind a DVD?) when I wake up or start them again the next night--or nights--until I see the whole thing. I read most books all the way to the end, even if I find parts of them dragging.

I had to stop reading this book. It was that bad. If it had been submitted to an agent or editor by a new writer rather than Mary Higgins Clark, it would have gotten a form rejection.

The title of the book refers to the years between the flight of Christ and his parents to Egypt to avoid Herod's slaughter of all young Jewish males and the time he began his ministry. Supposedly, according to this novel, Joseph of Arimathea was the one who took Jesus to Egypt. The premise of the story is that before the crucifixion and burial in the tomb of this same Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus wrote a letter thanking him for his kindness. It was stolen from the Vatican in the fifteenth century, but recently found in an ancient church.

Only, it really doesn't matter to the story at all that the maguffin is a letter supposedly written by Christ. It could have been a valuable necklace. Heck, it could have been the Maltese Falcon. Except Dashiell Hammet made a better case for the Templar origins of the Maltese Falcon than Clark makes for the authenticity of this letter.

So, right from the start, I felt like I had been cheated. Instead of being similar to The DaVinci Code with lots of references to the history of the manuscript and the times during which it was written, it's just an excuse for a poorly plotted murder mystery.

Examples of things Mary Higgins Clark did that would get a form rejection:
  • She has the main character describe herself by looking into a mirror. This is so cliche, it's mentioned as a no-no in almost every writing book I've ever read.
  • She uses a classic "As you know, Bob" at least twice in the book. This is another one of the classic beginning writer mistakes. (A list can be found here.) This is a scene where two characters who already know a piece of information talk about it just to inform the reader of a fact. They'd never have this conversation in real life because there'd be no need to talk about it.
"As we both know, most cases of this kind turn out to be family affairs."
  • She "walks the dog." This is when a writer gives a detailed description of a character's actions that is totally unnecessary and slows the story to a crawl.
"She changed from her skirt and jacket into a cotton sweater, slacks, and sandals, and went back downstairs. She went into the kitchen, made a cup of tea, and carried it into the breakfast room. There she settled into one of the comfortable padded chairs and leaned back with a sigh."
  • She switches point of view, usually at the end of a chapter to provide the "hook" for the next chapter. Chapter 12 is entirely from Mariah's point of view... until the last two paragraphs where she suddenly switches to Kathleen's (Mariah's mother) to have her give a clue to the murder.
  • She uses lazy writing to tells the reader extraneous things about minor characters.
"Father Kelly, eight-two years old but remarkably fit..."
  • And she repeats information about her totally bland characters as if the reader was too dimwitted to remember it from the last time she encountered the character. Maybe Ms. Clark was the one having a problem remembering who was who.
 When I got to this sentence today:
"When she finally made it to street level, Alvirah frantically spun her head in all directions."
I knew it was time to quit and move on. The Exorcist image was just too funny. And this was supposed to be a tense scene.

I'm happy I got this book from the library rather than paying for it. It was a major disappointment.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Chills of Change

A few weeks ago I wrote about the new opportunity I was being given to work part-time as part of a Transition to Retirement program offered by my employer. I called it Answered Prayers. This morning I got the official approval. I'll be starting my part-time schedule the first week in July.

First I did the Snoopy dance.

Then I got a knot in my stomach. Already?

Human beings don't like change. Change brings stress. My feeling was that this was going to be as difficult as moving or changing jobs. I've done both multiple times and I know all about that stress. Those two items show up on every Top Ten list of stressful events. Loss of a job shows up on many lists. Retiring is pretty much the same as losing a job. And my gut reaction was the same. This list even shows retirement as a separate item on the list.

For the first time I understood why a coworker at my former job, even though he was 68, wasn't looking forward to our impending layoff.

I've held at least part-time jobs since I was eighteen, except for a three year hiatus when my son was born. And a couple of shorter periods of unemployment; but those were always temporary, not a lifestyle change. It's ingrained in me to have a job, to go to work Monday through Friday (and sometimes Saturday and Sunday, too), to organize my life around my work schedule.

And I realized that I'm making a commitment to a totally different lifestyle. For the first time in decades, I'll have more days away from my job than at my job. I'm going way out on a limb here. I want to use that extra time for writing. I'm transitioning from IT geek to writer. Even though I started this change in January by changing my schedule and focusing on writing fiction instead of computer code, it's different now.

It's a commitment.

It didn't make sense to me to request the part-time schedule unless I was going to use those two days for more than watching movies and reading books. I've set up a schedule of goals for the rest of the year. Writing has been a hobby so far. I've only put myself out there a very few times by submitting to a contest or pitching to an agent. Over the ten years I've been writing, I've sold ONE short story for the whopping sum of $10. I kept holding back until I had the perfect book.

But there is no perfect book. At some point, you have to take the risk, take that novel that's had your heart and soul invested in it and see if it has wings.

So I've made a plan, a business plan, to have a book available for sale by the end of the year. Yeah, I can still not do anything with that, but that's not my nature. I'm big on commitments, even if they're just to myself.

I've gotten through lots of items on that Top Ten list before: a divorce, moving--including out of state twice, many job changes, two cancer scares. I know I can get through this one if I set my mind to it.

But it's still scary.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

What's In a Name

I've been thinking about names a lot lately. Dean Wesley Smith, in his book "Think Like a Publisher", recommends that if you're going to self-publish, you should have a publishing company name. I don't remember him actually giving a reason why, but I can think of a couple of reasons to do that.

One is it sends the message that this is a business, not only to the IRS, but to yourself. You're not just playing around here. You're serious. Once you have a business name, you start thinking that you really need a business plan. And a budget.

That budget thing is important. If this is a business, there's going to be a profit... or a loss. Probably more of the latter to begin with than the former. You need to decide up front how much money you're going to commit to this new business. It's much too easy to spend more than you can afford unless you separate your personal funds from your business funds. So you need a separate bank account. In the name of your publishing company.

There are a few restrictions on the name for your business. You'll have to register it as a DBA (Doing Business As) with the state where you live. It can't be a duplicate of an existing business in your state. You'll also want a domain name, a.k.a. a web site address, that's your business name. This one has to be unique in the world in one format or another.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to come up with an original name that hasn't been duplicated in one of those two areas? With the explosion in self-publishing and small presses, lots of names that you'd normally think of have been taken. Naturally the first things that came to my mind are things uniquely Arizona. Old Pueblo, Saguaro, Prickly Pear. All taken. I thought for a brief period of time that Prickly Pear Publishing would work, but there's one of those in Texas. Petroglyph Press has a certain ring to it. Nope. They're in California.

Another type of name I've been thinking about is a pen name or two. Now, with traditional publishing, it's usually your agent or publishing house who tells you you can't write under your own name. Sometimes this is because the book series is a work-for-hire. The publisher comes up with the idea for the series and hires an author to write it. Since it's their idea, they want to own the author name it's published under. It isn't yours. Other times it's because you're writing for two different publishers or in two different genres.

That last part about different genres has some merit. Readers tend to identify an author with one type of book. If they like an author, they want to buy everything they've written. This is a really good thing. Except when author Jane Doe writes inspirational women's fiction and erotic romance. The inspirational readers will be shocked at having bought an erotic romance. The romance readers will probably hate the inspirational fiction. Both sets of readers will vow to never buy another book by Jane Doe again. So, to make it easier on the reader who's shopping for another book like she read the last time, Jane Doe would be wise to write one genre under a different name.

The same kinds of restrictions on publishing company names also apply to author pen names. You don't want to have the same name as another author. And you want to be able to register your alternate author's domain name.

Names are important to me. Holly Lisle believes that you shouldn't think about naming a character until after you've fleshed her out and know enough about her to choose a name that fits. That doesn't work for me. While I'm deciding on hair and eye colors, body type, occupation, personality traits, etc., I can't get a good idea of what those are until I figure out what her name is.

I think one of the reasons I'm so hung up on names is that, as a child, my name was misread so frequently. Elise was quite unusual years ago. Elsie was a much more common name. To me, Elsie was a name for a spinsterly great aunt. Worse than that, it was the name of the Borden cow. I had enough self-image problems without being compared to a cow.

So I spend hours thinking about who am I and what business I'll be working for. I know that, like the names of my characters, the right names for my publishing company and pen names will eventually come to me. I just wish it weren't such hard work.