My teetering TBR pile

Readers like to read and writers like to read. But writers like to write too, which leaves less time for reading. It’s a humdrum conundrum really, but one that I’m faced with now. I’m currently reading six (yes, 6) books. They would be, in no particular order: Life by Keith Richards, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, Chez l’arabe by Mireille Silcoff, Falls the Shadow by Stefanie Gaither, The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin, and For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway.

Call me an idiot. Go on, I know you want to. Thank you.

But the fact is, I just can’t help it. I don’t pick up a new book because I’m bored with the one(s) I’m already reading but because I’m excited to get to know the new stranger that has appeared on my doorstep/shelf/Kindle.

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And now today the mailman brings this. Why, oh why did I order it? Ian McEwan is one of my favorite writers, so why did I think I’d be able to resist adding this to my TBR pile (that’s a To-Be-Read pile for those who don’t have this particular reading disorder).

And yet… the wonderful thing about my problem is that each night I get to spend some time in the company of whoever I feel like. Yes, I’m treating these books like people. Maybe it’s because I’m an author, but I can’t help over-shooting the story itself and landing smack in the middle of the writer’s mind. Obviously with Keith Richards’ autobiography, that’s normal, and Mireille is one of my friends, so in her case I can’t help it, but there are two dead white guys in that pile and yet still I experience an inescapable, almost tangible connection to them. No, it’s more than tangible. I could have a drink in a pub with Wilkie Collins, were he not far beyond moldering, and that would be cool. But no matter how buddy-buddy we’d become over our Guinness (or the Victorian gentleman’s drink of choice – probably Guinness) I don’t think I would get as much of a feeling for what makes him tick as when I’m tucked up under the covers with him (if you get my drift).

Isn’t that the beauty of literature though? If it’s done properly, not only do we get transported to a fictional world, but we also mainline the author’s mind. Even if you’re reading about Hannibal Lecter, Thomas Harris’s personality seeps through. And this is an odd thing, because I suspect he’s not a psychopathic killer. Shakespeare’s oeuvre covers a vast range of realities, but whether they’re historical tragedies or fantasy comedies, you’re still – when reading the plays more than watching them – in the Bard’s head.

So yeah, I like hanging out with great writers. The more the merrier. And speaking of merrier, the Bard’s Head would be an excellent name for an English pub. Maybe that’s where I’ll have that Guinness with the ghost of Wilkie Collins one day.

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A Symmetrical Strategy

Writing is a novel is super-duper easy. Oh wait, I got my words wrong. Writing a blog post is a breeze. No, that’s not even true. Okay, forget writing for a moment. The other night I was reading a bedtime story to my 5-year-old daughter when I was suddenly struck by the amount of cross-hatching in the illustrations. At first glance, the drawings of a little boy and his bear were fairly simple. I’d read the book several times to her and never paid much attention to the artwork, but for some reason that night I focused in on the cross-hatching, which is the technique for creating shaded areas in a drawing through the use of repeating lines. The length and spacing of the lines determine the amount of shade perceived by the eye at a distance. This drawing of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is a straightforward example.

Shakespeare probably just winged it: no planning, no plotting, and no rewrites. Riiiight…

The little bear in the story got lost one night when he was picked up in a swooping owl’s claws. The drawings of the moon, the owl and the bear in the nighttime sky were filled with cross-hatching far finer and subtler than in the Globe illustration here. I stopped reading for a few seconds and marvelled at the amount of time it must have taken the artist to produce such an effect. I thought to myself, I could never, ever have the patience to sit there and draw line after line with no margin for error. Then my daughter elbowed me with an impatient “Daddy!” and I boomeranged back from my reverie, acutely aware that parents aren’t supposed to space out in the middle of a bedtime story.

What does all this have to do with writing a novel? It’s all about the work involved. I sometimes forget that stringing together a bunch of words, then painstakingly going back over them and replacing some of them or changing their order is just as daunting for non-writers as creating a complex illustration would be for me. It’s hard. It’s often kind of annoying. And sometimes you get stuck. (Quick joke: part of my next novel is set in Paris and I’m worried that I might suffer from writer’s bloc.)

What does all this have to do with me writing a novel? Well, I promised I would publish the sequel to Silent Symmetry in “late 2013”. Now I realize that my writing strategy was wrong and I’m going to have to break that promise. Fortunately for my reputation, authors are notorious for breaking promises; we literally make things up that aren’t true for a living.

I don’t mind allowing readers a peak behind the creative curtain, so here’s my new writing and publication strategy for books two and three of the Embodied trilogy. Instead of planning, writing and rewriting book two, Starley’s Rust, then spending the time and effort it takes to publish and market it properly before embarking on the creation of book three, I’m going to plan and write books two and three back-to-back, then rewrite, publish and market book two. Once that is on the Kindles and iPads of a bunch of readers, I’ll rewrite, publish and market book three. This will allow me to more effectively control both the overall flow of the story and each book’s release date. This doesn’t just help me, it will also, crucially, give my readers a more fulfilling experience because, a) the books should be better; and b) readers of book two won’t have to wait nearly as long to read the conclusion of the trilogy.

So what we’re really dealing with here is some delayed gratification. Fortunately, I’m not illustrating my books too, or the delay would be far, far longer than the gratification!

Photo credit: Futurilla / Foter / CC BY-NC

The genre maketh the book

The reason I used the archaic third-person singular form of “make” in the title is because I was thinking about Shakespeare. And we all know that as soon as you start thinking about Shakespeare, you start talking like Shakespeare. (Unfortunately this doesn’t carry over into actually writing like Shakespeare).

I was thinking about book genres and have been for a few weeks because of the thorny problem of assigning one to Silent Symmetry. Wait a second – do people use “Shakespearean” as a genre or just an adjective? If “Shakespearean romance” is a genre what did the Bard himself call it – “Me romance”?

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He knew his genres alright…

Okay, I’m being silly. But genres really matter, whether it be (or not be) (Arrrgh, get out of my head, Shakespeare!) for movies, books or plays. They matter because people like to be darn sure what kind of movie they’re paying to see before they venture out to the cineplex. Romance readers want a happy ending. Crime readers want an investigation that leads to the crime being solved. Sci-fi readers want aliens or futuristic worlds or both. Genre authors deliver exactly what their fans want, and that’s great. So how do I make sure that someone who sees Silent Symmetry on Amazon knows what to expect?

By definition, Silent Symmetry is a Young Adult novel. But that’s an age category, not a genre, so it doesn’t help much. My story is set mainly in Manhattan in the present day, so that makes it “urban”, but it isn’t science fiction. Oh wait! There are beings who may be from another world. But maybe they aren’t. Maybe they’re more like paranormal creatures (though they most definitely are not vampires). Are they shape-shifters? Perhaps. But they’ve been around for a long time, so maybe they’re more akin to wizards or elves, making it a fantasy…

Gah! Okay, so what about the plot? It’s a mystery. Yes, that we can agree on (by “we” I mean me and the voices in my head who are helping me write this post). The main character, Kari, gets involved in a mystery that she tries to solve and on the way she, oh no – she falls in love! Does that make it a romance? It seems to be a sci-fi paranormal fantasy mystery romance. Have I written a mutant? No… it’s not a romance after all because that definitely requires a happy ending and this is only book one of a trilogy. But I need to make sure that female readers know there’s some heart-wrenching, pulse-quickening, lovey-dovey stuff in there. I know! I’ll call it a love story!

And that was where my brain imploded and I came up with the original genre of “a mystery-fantasy love story”. I was happy with it. I felt like it would appeal to my main target of female readers and wouldn’t disappoint anyone. But as I trawled through book blogs requesting reviews, a thought kept nagging at me – is “fantasy” really the right term? Doesn’t it sound like there will be elves and dragons and twinkly bits? This nagging thought eventually turned into a screaming demon that I decided to slay. “Away with fantasy!” I yelled, as I plunged a genre-specific dagger into the demon’s black heart.

Then I read my first Amazon review, which included this:

“(scenes in) the book … brought to mind of Narnia, others the Matrix, others still the X-Files. In the end this is thoroughly its own book and is full of surprises. This is a fantasy of splendid proportions…”

Fantastic. It is a mutant. Even worse, the reviewer called it a fantasy! That was when I decided to chuck in writing and become a crossing guard.

But luckily, before I could fill out the police criminal background check application form, I saw a definition of “paranormal” that got my attention. I had assumed the term referred to ghosts and poltergeists, but what someone said online (I’ve lost the link) was that if you remove the weird creatures from your book and what you’re left with is a present-day story, then you have paranormal fiction on your hands. And when I wrote this, I realized that I’d found my genre:

Silent Symmetry: a paranormal mystery love story.

But Book 2 will mess that up completely…

Photo credit: Lincolnian (Brian) / Foter.com / CC BY-SA