Back garden August 2021

Summer’s Finale: Rose, Lily, Dahlia

Fall (autumn) is almost here. We have had actual rain in the past week, and more is predicted. I am no longer a slave to the hose and watering can.

Here are some photos from August, which is usually a dismal month in the garden–tired, seedy, and dry. This year, despite the heat dome of June and hardly any rain, the scene was blessed by three plants: the rose “Fragrant Cloud,” happy in its new big pot, two plants of the dahlia “Bishop of Llandaff” (also in pots), and a couple of late-blooming white lilies (grown in half-barrels). That’s the secret: pots (and the gardener with the watering can).

Rose "Fragrant Cloud" August 2021
Rose "Fragrant Cloud" August 2021
Rose "Fragrant Cloud" August 2021
White lily closeup August 2021
White lily and pink African violet indoors August 2021
Dahlia "Bishop of Llandaff" August 2021
Dahlia "Bishop of Llandaff" closeup August 2021
Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum) and yellow leaf August 2021
Fall begins. Autumn arrives.

Damned if you do…

I really must stop reading “advice to writers” posts.

The mother of all writing rules is “Show, don’t tell.” Showing good. Telling bad. Oh, and while you’re at it, don’t use adverbs. You know, those nasty words that end in “-ly.”

The writer wants to convey to the reader that a character is experiencing an emotion. Anger, say, or fear, or joy. She can’t say “X was angry,” because “was” is one of those forbidden words. She can’t have X saying something “angrily.” So what to do?

Okay, the writer thinks, I’ll just show what the character does. X clenched his fists. Y rolled her eyes. Z sighed.

No, no, little writer. You can’t do that. Fist-clenching, eye-rolling, and sighing are overused. And please don’t have eyes wandering around the room or crawling over anyone’s body (I actually agree with that one).

You know what–I just realized something.

Many of these advice posts are written by trad pub gatekeepers and people providing services to writers–editors, book coaches, and similar. These folks read a million submissions or manuscripts in need of help. They are exquisitely attuned to words and phrases. If they are sifting through a deluge of submissions by hopeful writers, they are looking for reasons to reject. An offering has to be sharply different to perk these people’s jaded sensibilities (but not too different, of course). If they are working through a manuscript for a client, they are scrutinizing every word.

So–if you’re hoping to snag an agent, get traditionally published, or win a contest, by all means make sure your offering is free of these offending elements. Read the posts, absorb the advice, and edit accordingly.

But if you are publishing your own work, and your critique partners and beta readers say it’s good, it probably is good, even if your characters sigh or roll eyes more than once in your entire book. It doesn’t hurt to be aware of your go-to phrases and make sure you’re not actually overusing them, but most ordinary readers aren’t instantly annoyed by things that annoy people who read for a living.

Think about it–reading dozens of first chapters or short stories one after the other over several hours is a slog, I’m sure. In such a reading situation, the reader is almost certainly going to notice words and phrases that pop up in all or most of the pieces they read. They jump like fleas into the consciousness of that reader, and are about as welcome. They are the equivalent of the ticking clock or dripping tap to the insomniac. At the end of the session, the battle-weary reader is going to make sarcastic comments, like “Well, this batch had a dozen eye-rolls, fifteen sighs, nine shrugs, and a plethora of pounding hearts. Those writers! Can’t they come up with anything original?”

And what do you suppose that editor or book doctor is going to write about in their blog?

I’ll finish with something from one of the advice-givers in response to a cranky comment on one such post: “The only truly universal writing advice is ‘If it works, it works.’” Capitulation?

Well, maybe I won’t quit reading posts with advice to writers. I wouldn’t want my Audrey the Contrarian persona to run out of things to fulminate about.

gargoyle grumpy
Handwritten first draft manuscript of She Who Returns

Work in Progress Report

Maybe a better title would be “Regress Report.”

Remember the pile of scribbled-upon paper I displayed in a post at the end of June? That was the first draft of my current work in progress. Two hundred pages, about 100,000 words, I hoped.

I expected to take a couple of months to type it up (why does that sound old-fashioned?) The story was complete, more or less, so I was finished with the hard work of rendering imaginings into prose. All I had to do was pound the computer keyboard until I had a big, fat Word document I could massage into perfection.

Remember the motto I applied to the project? “PLOT MUST BE LOGICAL.” It lived up to that until the 60% point, when I reached a place I remembered as potentially problematic. It turned out to be actually problematic. In fact, I had added a note in the manuscript that said “Major Bump in the Road. Fix!” At the time (back in April), I was intent on powering through to “The End.” Any problems could be fixed in the rewrite.

Fixing this problem meant scrapping and rewriting ten pages, or about 5,000 words. The Imaginer had to be recalled from a state of torpor and persuaded to come up with some logical plot elements that would fit nicely into the chasm gap created by removing those ten pages. The new material couldn’t interfere with other plot elements that absolutely had to remain as they were.

As part of the rethink that preceded the rewrite, the Imaginer came up with a splendid new idea that fixed not only the previously identified bump in the road, but did away with some other logic-impairing aspects of the original.

The rewrite took about two weeks, in part because the continued drought in this part of the world made it necessary to spend an hour or so a day racing around with watering cans, dragging hoses, positioning sprinklers, etc. Then there were the usual garden tasks of deadheading, staking and tying, fretting about plants not doing well, and standing around admiring those that were.

Now, at the end of August, instead of a complete second draft, I still have 50 pages (25%) of the original manuscript to key in (which sounds less antediluvian than “type up”). I know it won’t be a simple matter of transcribing the original, because I have to make adjustments as a result of the rewrite, with the splendid new idea. And there are a couple of things the characters are going to have to discuss, to make sure that certain elements make an appearance.

On the plus side, I don’t have word count anxiety. At 75%, the document has about 77,000 words. There will be lots of surplus to trim, once I get to that part of the process. Short, skimpy early drafts make me nervous–will there be anything left after deleting all the crap?

I still hope to have a publish-worthy novel by spring 2022.

Red and green tomatoes, August 2021

Growing Tomatoes, Part 4

After nurturing the seedlings and young plants, potting out, eluding both early and late blight, and lots of watering, it’s time for the reward–vine-ripened tomatoes.

Green tomatoes, August 2021

Some gardeners adopt a practice I gather is used in commercial greenhouses–removing all or most of the foliage from the tomato plants once they’ve set enough fruit. The thinking is there is no further purpose for the leaves, and some of them may be yellowing, so off they come. I’ve never done this. At this stage I do cut the tops off the plants because there’s no point in encouraging them to bloom and set new fruits that will never amount to much before season’s end. I may clip off leaves that are shading fruit clusters, but that’s about it. And I reduce watering to every other day instead of daily. More about the foliage removal issue may be found HERE.

Red, orange, and green tomatoes, August 2021

Then it’s just a matter of harvesting the tomatoes as they ripen. If cold and rain arrive while there are still green tomatoes, I pick them all and ripen them in the house. I wash the green tomatoes in soapy water, rinse and let them dry, and then set them out on trays and keep an eye on them. I’ve had home grown tomatoes as late as Christmas time using this technique.

Red tomatoes, August 2021

If I have enough red tomatoes at once, I make salsa. Here is how I do it: Cut up 4, 6, 8, or however many tomatoes you have for the purpose. I chop them up quite finely because I don’t remove the skins. Put tomatoes in a pot and add one finely chopped nectarine. Simmer on medium heat, uncovered, until the consistency suits you. In the meantime, mince an onion and several garlic cloves, as well as whatever kind of hot pepper you prefer. Including the pepper seeds increases the hotness, so discard them if you prefer a mild salsa. Saute the onion, garlic, and pepper in olive oil until limp but not browned and add to the tomato mixture in the pot. Add a teaspoon or so of salt and simmer until it looks right. If you like cilantro, chop up a handful and add it after removing the salsa from the stove. Allow to cool, and enjoy with whatever type of corn chip you prefer. Keeps well in the fridge (but that’s not usually an issue).

Notes: I prefer a cooked salsa to uncooked. The texture is better and the flavours blend together more thoroughly than if left raw. Adding the nectarine was something I tried on impulse a couple of years ago. It improves the flavour, in my opinion, but it is optional. Finally, I have nothing against cilantro, but don’t usually have any on hand, so it’s optional for me.

Seeing More Stars: Rating and Ranking

Recently I published a post about an apparent disconnect between quality of writing and the ratings and reviews of books on Goodreads. There were a lot of comments, including one that linked to this article on “review bombing” on the Goodreads site.

Ratings and reviews are important for authors, especially indies. But given the inconsistencies and manipulations they’re subject to, maybe they shouldn’t be.

open books, grass

The standard rating scheme found on Amazon, Goodreads, and many other sites, is the five star system, in which five stars means “excellent” and one star means “abysmal.” It’s neat and simple, and because it involves numbers, may be considered quantitative. Never mind that it’s purely subjective and may be gamed.

Calvin and Hobbes comic strip about books
Image source unknown

Ways to rate or label a book’s quality

  • Five star system.
  • Ten star system.
  • Binary system: Yes or No? Good or Bad?
  • Would you read this book again?
  • Would you recommend this book to a friend?
  • Would you recommend it to an enemy?
  • Emotional effect checklist: the book made me feel: happy, excited, scared, angry, disgusted, bored, etc.
  • No rating at all; read the reviews and make up your own mind.

The whole point of rating is to establish a value marker for a book. If you look up a title on Goodreads, you see the book’s collective star ranking below the title and author, expressed as both an image and a number, such as 4.39, 3.67, or whatever. Next to that is a “Rating details” link that shows how many readers have assigned each rating, both as a graph and numerically. It may look scientific and unarguable, but that’s deceptive when you think about where the data comes from.

open book against blue sky with white clouds

Is rating necessary or realistic for books? Is a book a “product,” like a vacuum cleaner or a t-shirt?

Maybe it depends on how readers use the information. To me, the numbers and rating profile are only a preliminary indication. I often look up reviews and ratings only after I’ve started reading a book and have formed an idea about it. At that point, I want to see what other readers think. I usually read reviews with ratings other than five stars because they go into into more detail than “I love, love, LOVE this book!” So ratings don’t have a direct bearing on whether I buy a book.

This is not true for other readers, I’m sure, and I know that ratings and reviews do have a great deal of influence on outcomes such as BookBub promotions and purchases by libraries.

Something to think about: Amazon’s ranking system is based on sales, not ratings. The star ratings are a separate thing. In theory, if enough people buy a book through Amazon it could be a Number 1 Bestseller, even if no one rates (or even reads) it.

Finally, what about those lazy (or malicious) people who give low ratings but don’t review? I notice this a lot on Goodreads. Okay, it’s way easier just to click on a star than to marshal your thoughts and put them into words, but it’s not terribly helpful for readers or authors. This is especially true of one and two star ratings. I think it’s important to specify why you think a book deserves a low rating. Are some of those reviewless 1-star ratings mean-spirited efforts to drag down the number attached to a particular book?

What about you, fellow writers and readers? What do you think of book ratings? Do you pay attention to them when selecting books to read? Would you prefer something other than the 5 stars?

Featured image from Pexels; other images from Pixabay, except as noted.

Back garden end of June 2021

Strange and Wonderful

We’re roasting through another heat wave on the west coast. Here are sights from the garden in July and so far in August. First the strange…

Rose "Fragrant Cloud" bloom bleached by sun during June 2021 heat wave
Flower of rose “Fragrant Cloud” bleached by the late June heat wave.
This is “Fragrant Cloud’s” normal colour
Battarrea phalloides mushroom with trowel for size comparison July 2021
The weird dryland mushroom Battarrea phalloides is back again this summer. (The trowel is there as a size comparison. It’s about 8 in. or 20 cm.)
Borage flowers from above July 2021
Borage flowers viewed from above. Sort of an art nouveau effect, I think.
Windblown cloud or maybe contrail July 2021
A wind-sculpted cirrus cloud (or maybe a contrail.)

And now the wonderful…

Borage flowers July 2021
Borage flowers
White Lychnis coronaria and Beach Pea (Lathyrus japonicus) June 2021
White Lychnis coronaria and beach pea (Lathyrus japonicus). Two quasi-weeds having a moment.
Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum) and orange daylily
This Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum) has outdone itself again this summer.
Heuchera "Timeless Orange" with leaves coloured cream, yellow, orange, and red
Heuchera “Timeless Orange” showing leaf colours other than orange.
Pink oriental lily from mixed batch August 2021
Another lily from the impulse buy mixed bag of bulbs.
Dahlia "Bishop of Llandaff" August 2021
Dahlia “Bishop of Llandaff.” The flowers glow wonderfully just about sunset, but the camera doesn’t pick that up as well as I’d like.
Pink dahlia flowers August 2021
The Nameless Dahlia in fine form.

That’s it for now. Tomatoes are ripening; with luck they won’t roast on the vine.