Monday, June 27, 2016
by Meredith Cole
Writers can only scribble (or type) away in their dark corner for so long. Eventually someone needs to read what they've written. Before that first someone is an agent or editor, it's probably best that someone else takes a quick look to see if they "get" what you're writing (and help you get rid of glaring errors). Writing groups are a free way to do that. When they're good--they're amazingly helpful. And when they're not--they can be damaging to a fledgling writer's psyche.
When I teach writing classes, I use a critique group format. Everyone has to read everyone else's writing and comment on it. At first students don't understand why it's important that they critique other work (or listen to what other students have to say about their own). They just want to hear what I think. So I keep explaining how it's so much easier to recognize mistakes in someone else's writing, and how, once they recognize the mistakes, they will learn to stop making them in their own stories. And, by the end of the semester, my students usually "get it." And often they decide to go and create a critique group with the other members of the class.
How do you know when a writing group is bad? That's easy. You leave a session full of despair, not sure if you ever want to write again. People don't offer advice--they rant or belittle the other members of the group. If you ever find yourself in a critique group like that, you should run--not walk--and get out of the group as soon as possible. It's not you, it's them.
How do you know when you've found a good writing group? You leave a session full of fresh ideas and concrete ways to fix your piece. You're relieved that someone found a few of your boneheaded mistakes so you can correct them. You know they're helping you make your writing better.
If I hadn't connected with a group of mystery writers in Brooklyn way back in 2005 (with Triss Stein, Jane Olson, Marilyn Wallace and Mary Darby), I don't think I would have ended up published by St. Martin's. Their feedback was invaluable, and they were incredibly helpful at getting me to see how I could make my book and my writing better. These days I meet 5 months out of the year (January to May) with the Moseley Writers Group in Charlottesville. It's a small eclectic group of writers who bring everything from personal essays to YA to mysteries in for critique. With their help, I have continued to grow as a writer and improve. And I leave each session energized and excited to return to the page, so it's definitely working for me.
Friday, June 24, 2016
by Paul D. Marks
And ditto for movies.
I used to feel not only compelled but obligated to finish any book I started. (Okay, a little compulsive I know.) But as I’ve gotten older that just doesn’t work anymore. Life is too short. There’s too many books and too little time, as has been noted here all week. I won’t even say there’re too many good books, because I won’t claim that every book I finish—and even like—is a “good” book. It might just be something I enjoy. A guilty pleasure.
I read a variety of things, non-fiction and fiction and various genres within that. These days I don’t often read a non-fiction book cover to cover like I used to. I bounce around, sometimes looking at the table of contents or the index for subjects I might find particularly interesting. And sometimes I just open to a page and start reading.
Fiction is, of course, different. You really have to read it from head to tail if you want to get the full flavor and depth of it. I’ll usually give a book about 80-100 pages. But I have to admit that I might read beyond that even if I’m not enjoying the book because hope springs eternal. And I guess I still have that expectation that it will get better. Unfortunately on some books I’ll read all 400 pages until hope turns to despair.
For movies, I’ll give them about a half hour. That should take me to the end of Act I, give or take. If it doesn’t grab me by then: bye-bye.
However, when I’ve been a judge for various competitions I have felt obligated to read every story from stem to stern. And I’ve pretty much succeeded at that, though it can be extremely time-consuming. But I have to admit there was one story that I just couldn’t finish. Because it wasn’t a “story” but more of a political diatribe disguised as a story and the characters were just mouthpieces for the author. But one clunker out of the tons I’ve read for various contests isn’t a bad batting average I’d say.
And like Catriona mentioned yesterday, sometimes I’ve started a book and for one reason or another just couldn’t get into it. Picked it up later and wow, what have I been missing.
A book doesn’t have to be a fast-paced, rip-roaring page turner either. One of my favorite books is The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati, about a soldier who is stationed at a remote outpost and spends his life hoping and waiting for the glory of battle. Though that’s really just what it’s about on the surface. Now, I admit this book is a slow read, so you’d think I would have stopped at some point. But I just loved it and it’s well worth the slowness in my opinion.
On another note, I don’t always finish novels or stories I start to write, but I guess that’s for another time.
Thursday, June 23, 2016
Do I always finish a book I've started? And if not, what makes me lay it down?
No. Ever since I first got my three orange library tickets, I've now and then failed to finish reading the books I've chosen. (Below is the picture the internet gave me when I Googled "orange library card UK".)
|It's a card, with an orange thing, held in a library collection.|
As to what makes me give up? Well, I think joyful reading is a three-legged stool: there's the book, the reader and the moment.
I'm sure there are bad books. Somewhere sometime a book must have been published that no one liked enough to finish. I don't think I've ever stopped reading because I was turning the pages of a bad book, though. I turned thirteen pages of 50 SHADES OF GREY and gave up on page fourteen. But 46,472 and counting people liked it enough to tell Amazon.
And I'm not a perfect reader. I'm uninterested in some things (Middle Earth, for instance). My heart sinks when faced with some things (long poems, for instance. Anything much longer than a sonnet pretty much makes me glaze over. Poems that go over the page to the next page leave me behind.)
But I'm not self-regarding enough to think The Lord of The Rings and Paradise Lost are no good because they're no good for me. So I wasn't that surprised when I used Simon Armitage's Sir Gawain and The Green Knight as a bookmark park for a year and a half.
But then there's that third thing - the moment. The season, the day of the week, the time of the day, what you read last, what you're writing, whether the world seems to be going to hell in a handcart all around you and no one has noticed . . . there are so many ways a reading experience can be derailed.
And the proof of it is when a book I tried and failed with (Failed I tell you! Failed like a big honking FAILURE) comes back in another guise and shows itself to be delightful.
I've lost count of the number of times I've been handed a moderating gig , or even an interviewing gig, and on my bookshelf is something by one of the panelists (or the sole interviewee) that I started and laid down unfinished. I pick it up again and adore it! Devour it! Buy the backlist and bore everyone on Facebook with how fantabulous this author is.
Nothing ever makes me feel like a bigger idiot than realizing that I had treasure on my bookshelf and didn't know.
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
|Waiting for a long vacation|
|Quick fix, in-flight fun!|
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
But it's not a question of taste so much at this particularly mad phase of my life. It's a question of schedule. I am too busy, my brain is fried by the p.m., and my attention span seems kind of ... wonky.
Monday, June 20, 2016
Friday, June 17, 2016
I'm gonna need to modify this week's question—"If you could host a dinner party where the guests didn’t actually have to be alive, which three writers would you invite?"—for my own situation, since our dining room table actually seats six.
|Chekhov, already dressed|
for dinner, it seems
- Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy L. Sayers. I recognize that a more confrontational pairing might be Chandler and Sayers, given Chandler's pointed commentary about Sayers' work in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder," but Hammett is a personal favorite, of course.
- Walker Percy and Anne Tyler. I'm a big fan of books with a philosophical bent, and I can imagine this corner of the table would prove awfully deep in that direction. Tyler is fairly reclusive, of course, so just getting her over for dinner would be a coup, and from what I know about Percy—like me, a big bourbon fan—he'd balance things out in terms of conviviality but always with a gentlemanly grace as well.
- Finally, Tolstoy and Chekhov, drawing on my long-time interest in Russian lit (and timely now, with my continuing chapter-a-day reading of War and Peace this year). The two writers—masters each in his own way—did know one another, of course, but not always without friction.
Thursday, June 16, 2016
If you could host a dinner party where the guests didn’t actually have to be alive, which three writers would you invite?
I couldn’t narrow down my choice to only three writers, so I came up with a dozen interesting trios (call it a “Dinner Party of the Month Club”):
Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey – I’d be taking notes at this soirée!
Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, Reed Farrel Coleman – Three contemporary writers whose series feature tough, wise-guy-ish PIs. Bonus: Their last names all begin with “C”!
Robert Harris, Robert McGammon, Robert Bloch – One, two, three twisted Roberts.
Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Shirley Jackson – Oh, the horrors! But in a good way!
Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, John Grisham – I’d keep my ears open for investment advice.
Dr. Seuss, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume – One night I’d love sitting at the kids’ table.
Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury – Far out! Really far out!
Patricia Highsmith, Scott Turow, Alexander Dumas – On the menu: Revenge (served cold)
William Goldman, Alfred Hitchcock, Aaron Sorkin – Screenwriters are writers, too!
William Shakespeare, William Faulkner, James Joyce – I’d invite these three if I really wanted to concentrate on my meal. (Because I wouldn’t understand a word they were saying, and even if I could, I don’t think I’d be able to get a word in edgewise.)
Who would you invite to your dinner party?
Short story news! I’ve had two stories published in the past few months. Stormy, With a Chance of Murder is in the CHESAPEAKE CRIMES: STORM WARNING anthology. The Last Loose End is in the July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (available now!).
Wednesday, June 15, 2016
Tuesday, June 14, 2016
What about you? Which authors would you like to invite?