Month: February 2013

The Garden in February

February is almost over (that didn’t take long, but then it’s missing a couple of days). Things are happening in the garden, but slowly. There has been no great outburst of flowering as yet. On the other hand, there haven’t been any blizzards, sleet, floods or hurricanes. It’s been a pretty benign winter (so far).

Notable now are the following…

Hellebore "Ivory Prince"

Hellebore “Ivory Prince”

The hellebore “Ivory Prince,” which was showing only a few buds in January, is now in almost full bloom.

Primula juliae

Primula juliae

These reliable little primulas, which I’ve distributed around the garden, are finally starting to perform well.

Viola odorata

Viola odorata

As are these rather weedy but sweetly perfumed violets. They spread themselves throughout the place; my efforts have been directed to reducing their numbers, but I am grateful for them in late winter, when they exude a scent out of proportion to their modest size.

Acanthus mollis

Acanthus mollis

This acanthus is sprouting out with gloriously yellow foliage this year. I hope the colour isn’t a sign of deprivation.

Iris unguicularis

Iris unguicularis

Now that this wonderful winter-blooming and drought-tolerant iris has firmly established itself here, I will have to learn how to manage its foliage so the flowers are more visible. Perhaps cutting the old leaves quite short in fall will do the trick; the flowers will be fully visible and new foliage can grow as they fade.

Iris reticulata

Iris reticulata

Another iris, this one very small but also welcome because of its early blooming. Unfortunately my planting of them has dwindled over the years. I will have to restore it, possibly adding the yellow Iris danfordiae, which would be a nice contrast. I seem to have a lot of things with blue or purple flowers at this time of year.

Meconopsis

Meconopsis

Finally, all eleven of the blue poppies I planted to the north of a large deciduous magnolia in my front garden are sprouting out — very exciting!

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The Ratings Game

Now that I’ve rated quite a few books on Goodreads, Amazon and Smashwords, I’ve decided I don’t like the five-star system. It’s too limited, at least the way I use it.

I give five stars only to books I believe to be exceptional. One star is reserved for really abysmal books; I haven’t as yet given this rating to any book and would have to think long and hard before doing so. Three stars are for books I deem to be okay but not great (not always for the same reasons, of course) and two stars are for books with a good idea behind them but poor execution. I give four stars to books I think are well-written and interesting,

I would be happier with a 7, 8 or 10 star system — strange, because I consider myself to be a lumper rather than a splitter in most ways. When it comes to books, though, I see nuances and approximations. There have been occasions when I really wished I could give 3.5 or 4.5 stars; in such cases I struggle with whether to go with the lower or higher rating and often end up feeling bad about my choice.

The main problem with the star system is that it’s purely subjective, unfortunate when it’s perceived to have so much effect on book sales. My five-star book may be someone else’s two-star, with the reasons behind those ratings emotionally-based and ultimately indefensible by rational means. That’s why I don’t base my book acquisition decisions entirely on the star system or even on readers’ reviews although I do pay attention to them. I mostly ignore reader’s comments associated with five-star ratings and find that single stars often accompany complaints about a book’s formatting or other issues that have nothing to do with the writing. Four-, three- and two-star ratings tend to have the most interesting  and thoughtful reviews.

Some say that “customer” reviews can’t be trusted because they are supplied by the writer’s friends and family (if wildly positive) or (if negative) attempts by rival writers to “game” the ratings system. That may be so in some cases, and is yet another reason to distrust ones and fives.

Finally, I recognize that what people call “reviews” on Amazon or book-related social media sites are not reviews in the traditional sense. Rather, they are comments or opinions that range from ignorant to sophisticated. With all their faults, they do give a prospective reader or purchaser some idea of what a book is like.

I do wish there were more stars to play with.

Well, back to reading The Zombie Autopsies by Steven C. Schlozman, MD. No doubt I’ll be rating it and commenting on Goodreads once I’m finished. Right now I’ll just say that I don’t recommend reading it during meals. Along with a lot of queasiness-inducing stuff, it has pictures.

Fistfights in the Salon, or, What is Good Writing, Really?

The Fiction Writers Guild at LinkedIn has the best discussions about writing — mostly articulate, no obscenities but a lot of hot zingers. Even the trolls are civil. Like most of my recent posts on writing, this one was inspired by (mostly) lurking on these discussions.

Self-publishing is a kind of salon des refuses of the literary world, populated by writers who have been rejected by traditional publishers or decided to bypass them. Lately it has been full of turmoil about “bad” writers churning out inferior prose that makes everyone look bad, even those who have diligently honed their craft. Online discussions about writing almost always come down to this — what is good writing, and why don’t those bad writers ever listen? People jump in wielding metaphorical fists and philosophical razors, the action gets frothy and eventually peters out, exhausted. The following week it all starts up again from a different angle. Recently, there has been a vigorous discussion as to who should write reviews on Amazon — not self-published authors, some say, because they are self-serving. Not just any old reader either, but — get this — only “professional critics” who have been endorsed by editors (those all-knowing editors again!)

From the vantage point of this obscure blog, I offer my thoughts. Entering a minefield here — strap on flame-proof armour!

Before I was a writer, I was a reader (and remain one), so I approach the question from that point of view. I think it’s impossible to define good (or, for that matter, bad) writing in technical terms, but “good” books have specific effects on readers.

A good book leaves an imprint on the reader’s mind, generating longings for it between reading sessions. Especially good books have this effect long after being read, resulting in re-readings, sometimes many of them. The characters become friends whose company the reader misses, and the settings they inhabit are dream-places the reader wants to revisit.

This is irrational stuff, or perhaps “sub-rational.” As a reader, I relate to books in an emotional way. Some generate positive emotions, others are repellent. When reading a book that delights me, I’m not consciously aware of technical issues. I may notice them after several re-readings, but by then I don’t care because that book has become one of “my” books, sort of like a friend whose minor flaws I am willing to overlook. It’s entirely possible to become attached to books that are technically imperfect, although too many obvious typos or other errors jolt the reader out of the story on the first reading, preventing the bonding process.

If readers’ attachments to certain books are emotionally-based, no wonder it’s impossible to come up with a definitive set of criteria for good writing. A rational approach lends itself to creating such a list, but that belongs in the realm of academic literary criticism, which is not what most readers engage in when they give an opinion on a book they have read. This is actually a good thing for writers because it broadens the realm of action, throwing open an infinity of creative possibilities. Think of a blank canvas and a full spectrum of pigments as opposed to the outlines and little paint pots in a paint-by-numbers set. Why would writers want to fence themselves in with a write-by-numbers set of rules?

This is why discussions that try to define “good writing” frequently become heated and are never conclusive. For writers who are looking to do something other than write, they can be amusing, and for bloggers in need of topics they are useful.

Self-Publishing on the Cheap

Lurking on various forums frequented by self-publishers, I’ve been surprised by how much some will spend to bring forth their works — thousands of dollars in some cases — for editing, graphic design and publicity.

I have published four ebooks and spent almost nothing. Smashwords is a free ebook distribution service. WordPress hosts blogs for free. I’ve spent about $20 per year for my domain name. I created my own cover images and book trailers (and yes, maybe they show it, but for now they suit me and making them was a creative experience in itself).

I have no personal experience to compare my approach with any other, but this is what I think:

Large expenditures do not guarantee success. Don’t go into debt.

Start out with free or cheap options and judiciously add paid-for enhancements.

I have recently posted my thoughts on “professional editing,” so will say only that there are many options other than costly ones. Editing makes a work better, but expensive editing is no magic bullet.

If you are self-publishing in print, hire a graphic artist to design your book covers. Unless you are confident of your abilities to put together an eye-catching image, it may be worthwhile to do this even for an ebook.

As to publicity, I suspect it can be a bottomless well for cash. Don’t keep dumping it in if the results fail to delight you.

The thing about starting out with bare-bones, free or cheap options is that you give yourself the chance to see how well your book(s) will do simply as themselves, supplemented with your own marketing efforts. Here is a list of things almost anyone can do. I’ve tried a few of them myself (and I am by no means a natural when it comes to marketing).

If your book isn’t doing as well as you hoped it would after a few months or a year, have a meeting with yourself and strategically select enhancements — graphic design, advertising, the services of a publicist. Add one at a time and see what difference it makes. The thing about self-publishing is that you get to call the shots. No one is going to take your books off the market if they don’t generate enough sales within a specific time.

Victoria BC Weather: The Weekend Forecast

Punxsutawney Phil’s Special Day

There are two momentous days in February: Groundhog Day and Valentines Day. Please don’t get the two mixed up.  This Saturday is Groundhog Day where according to legend if a groundhog emerges from their den and sees their shadow – expect six more weeks of winter. If not, expect an early spring.

Although Punxsutawney Phil is the most famous groundhog (and the only married one – his wife’s name is Phyllis), there are several others: Staten Island Chuck (“Hey, you talk’n to me?”), General Beauregard Lee (“Pay no never mind to me”), and the Canadian groundhogs: Shudenacadie Sam, Balzac Billie and Wiarton Willie (“Wow, cold eh? – Let’s go to Timmys”).

The Groundhog Day ceremony in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is bizarre as it gets. Phil emerges from his lair on Gobbler’s Knob and “talks” to the Groundhog Club President in a secret language called “Groundhogese” (I kid…

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