I have been known to question writing “rules.” (See how those quote marks sneaked in?) Sometimes I wonder why… Am I a knee-jerk rebel, one who thinks any piece of written schlock is good as long as it was written sincerely? Do I really think writers who follow rules and comb through their works-in-progress for transgressions are “sheeple,” churning out lifeless overworked prose?
I hope not, but…
One thing I’ve realized: I react negatively to words and phrases I see trotted out repeatedly and without question. Phrases like “Show, don’t tell,” “Kill your darlings,” and “Never use [insert word(s) here].”
Such writing rules are triggers for me.
Now I’ve admitted all that, here are some thoughts that won’t go away…
Why is it OK for established writers to flout the rules? And don’t say it’s because they do it well. If prologues and backstory are bad, they’re bad, no matter who writes them. Right?
Is “info-dump” simply a pejorative term for what is called “rich, detailed description” when it appears in a book by a big-name author published by the Big Five? (Maybe soon to be the Big Four?)
Does anyone really write a first draft that conforms to the three-act story structure? I’m convinced that structure in a work of fiction is discovered after completion, rather than deliberately created by the writer. Especially in a first draft.
Every main character must have a goal, and every scene must contribute to their efforts to reach that goal. No goal, no story. Really? What about characters who are just bumbling along through life? OK, those are found in “literary” novels. (Yes, I know many of these well-worn rules apply to genre fiction.)
Why do some poorly-written books get 5-star ratings and gushing reviews? Could it be that those readers skimmed the boring parts and are happy as long as the book ends with a startling twist or a heartwarming scene? (OK, let’s toss a few sour grapes into the mix.)
I can’t help but notice that many advice-to-writers posts illustrate their points—about creating hooks, or where the first pinch-point should be, or what kinds of conflict you really need—with examples from movies, not books. What does that tell you? Their advice is not directed to screenwriters, after all, but to those who write long-form fiction. Why can’t these folks come up with examples from novels or stories? Maybe they don’t read much? (This is not a rhetorical question; I really don’t know.)
All right, steam has been let off. That’s it for now. (And those colour-gradient backgrounds are fun!)
Does anyone else harbour niggling thoughts like these? Little thought-bugs you can’t swat away? Here’s your chance to share them with your fellow writers and readers!
Like Mae, I received an email from Shepherd’s founder Ben Fox through the Contact form on my blog. Because of Mae’s favourable experience, I decided to contribute a list of recommended books on a theme similar to that of my novel The Friendship of Mortals, namely, the intrusion of the supernatural into real life.
The folks at Shepherd were great to work with. They created a beautiful page with my recommendations. The link is above, or you can find it HERE. The hardest part for me (but it was fun too!) was deciding on a theme and finding five books I’ve read that belong there. I can easily think of other themes and lists, so may contribute again.
Best of all, the service is completely free. Based on my experiences, I recommend it to fellow authors.
Here on southern Vancouver Island, fall has been cancelled and summer continues.
Our normal temperatures for early October are a low of 8C and a high of 16C (46 to 61F). The past week has seen highs topping out in the low 20s (low 70sF), and this trend is forecast to continue for at least the next week. This after above average warmth in August and September.
And it hasn’t rained since early July.
On the plus side, these dry, windless, not-too-warm days are great for gardening and other outdoor activities. On the minus side is the giant water bill I’m anticipating later in the year, and the continuing drudgery of hauling watering cans and hoses around. Ironically, our routine summer watering restrictions ended on September 30th, which means we can now water whenever it pleases us, for as long as we want (keeping the bill in mind, of course).
More seriously, the long rainless period has adversely affected entire ecosystems. Salmon are dying in dried-up rivers. Forest trees, already stressed by the “heat dome” of June 2021, are struggling. These are quiet disasters, unlike intense and dramatic ones like floods and fires. But the effects are potentially dire. Fewer salmon means fewer killer whales and fewer bears.
Returning to the garden, it is true that with shorter days and cooler nights, plants are preparing for dormancy. It’s not like May, when everything is making new growth and setting buds. Plants don’t need as much water now, but they usually enter dormancy with several good soaking rains. So I’ve kept up my watering program, hoping to send the little green dudes into their off-season in at least a dampish state.
Because of last winter’s copious rain and a cool, wet spring, I didn’t start using my soaker hoses until late July. I expected to stop watering before the end of September. I was wrong. Moreover, I have discovered something about soaker hoses, which I use to irrigate several perennial beds. They’re fine for normal summers, in which the rainless period lasts for two months or less. But when the garden dries out completely, soakers simply don’t have the reach of sprinklers. So even though they’re a less responsible irrigation tool, I’ve been relying on sprinklers for this late-season watering binge.
Despite the abnormal warmth and dryness, there are the usual signals of the turning year. Heavier dews and occasional foggy mornings. Winter birds—juncos, northern flickers, spotted towhees and others—are back, bopping around the garden and foraging. Hardy cyclamen are in bloom.
But tomatoes are still ripening on the vine.
And asters are in full, glorious bloom.
So is this dahlia.
There is a lot to be grateful for on this Canadian Thanksgiving weekend.
Featured image from Pixabay; other photos by the author.
We’ve lived in this house for 30 years, and hope to have another 20 before we “downsize.” Thirty years is more than enough time to accumulate a lot of useless stuff, and it’s best to get rid of it before the downsizing is imminent. Last September a large bin spent a week in the driveway while we deposited stuff into it. Soon after that, we did a run to a recycling yard with 150 kilos of old magazines, the kind with shiny, clay-infused paper.
But the house is still full of junk.
I will now share a few belated insights:
The fatal phrase, when it comes to surplus stuff, is: “It might come in handy someday.”
If anyone still has subscriptions to paper magazines or journals: read or at least scan them soon after they arrive. Keep an issue only if it contains information essential right then. If not, bin it, especially if you catch yourself saying or thinking “This might be worth keeping until I feel like reading it.” Get rid of the current issue before it becomes a past issue.
Think hard before buying or otherwise acquiring anything that isn’t edible. If in doubt, don’t. Or at least put the purchase off for a week. You may find you don’t need the item after all.
Resist mightily when family members offer you items from their own dejunking projects, along with a dose of guilt. “It’s been in the family for decades,” or “They don’t make these anymore,” or “The fabric is really good and it might fit you someday.” Nope. If there’s no other solution, pretend to accept the item and hustle it to the nearest donation centre forthwith.
There are times when one is motivated or forced to dejunk, as in getting ready for renovations or repairs. Seize those opportunities and make the most of them!
The hardest items for me to dispose of are: a) useless, ugly objects freighted with sentiment, such as those family heirlooms; and b) clothing and textiles that can no longer be described as “gently worn,” but retain enough integrity that putting them in the garbage feels wrong. Recycling of textiles isn’t a possibility as yet where I live, and not every worn garment can be used as a cleaning rag.
I think it’s easier to get rid of things once you reach a certain age. An object fuzzy with dust because it’s been untouched for a couple of decades looks more like trash than treasure. The space occupied by things becomes more valuable than the things. I often look at a room or a closet or a drawer and envision it unburdened from some proportion of its contents. Luxury is an empty space, not one crammed with stuff; it’s a shelf with one valued object, not a dozen useless, dusty items. This is worth remembering when looking at things begging to be bought. Space is indeed the final frontier.
Books, of course, are the great exception.
There is another form of clutter I am guilty of amassing—scraps of paper with thoughts, ideas, and observations. Yes, it would be better to have a notebook for that purpose, but there’s not usually one nearby when a noteworthy idea comes along. But there’s almost always a piece of paper handy–a receipt or envelope or piece of junk mail. So the brilliant idea is scribbled upon it. In time, a small heap of such idea-scraps forms, but unlike a compost heap, it doesn’t transform into something worthwhile all by itself.
The other day, I spent several hours squinting at scribbles on scraps of paper, reading them, deciding whether they were worth keeping, and if so, where they belonged. Quite a few came from when I was writing books I’ve since published, so I put them in the recycling bin. Some were ideas for works I may write someday, so now reside in an envelope labelled Ideas for the Unwritten. Another batch relate to my completed but as yet unpublished novel, Winter Journeys. Sorting the scraps was worthwhile, but surprisingly tiring.
I won’t even mention electronic clutter, such as the overflowing email inbox, the ever-expanding TBR in the e-reader, or all those bookmarks.
Summer is definitely in the rearview now, so I thought I would report on how I did with my list of intended summer reads.
I’m happy to say I finished reading all the books I named in my June 12th post. And a few others besides.
Here are one-sentence reviews (an exercise in brevity inspired by horror writer Priscilla Bettis). The book titles link to my full reviews on Goodreads.
Sunwielder by D. Wallace Peach In vivid, graphic prose, this book tells the story of a farmer turned soldier in a brutal and endless war, who receives a gift that grants him a unique relationship with death.
Best Friends and Other Lovers by J.F. Kaufmann A trio of spicy love stories, including a Christmas-themed tale that warms the heart as well as… other places.
Sailing to Redoubt by C. Litka A delightful old-fashioned adventure story in which an aspiring archaeologist finds himself on a sailboat in tropical seas with a pair of enigmatic twin sisters.
The Daemoniac by Kat Ross A twisty mystery in which a whip-smart young woman detective races around 1880s New York City to track down a diabolical killer who may not be human.
The Journey by Suzanne Miller A hopeful post-apocalyptic story in which two young people seek healing and truth in a world devastated by climate change.
Alchemy by Mark Ryan A sparse but intriguing story about an alchemist, unfortunately diluted by long sections of passionate poetry.
The Two-Blood Legacy by J.F. Kaufmann A detailed paranormal romance and family saga about gorgeous werewolves, wizards, and vampires in the present-day western U.S.
Hope by Terry Tyler A compelling and frighteningly realistic dystopian thriller in which a young woman becomes enmeshed in the heartless machinery of a near-future UK engaged in brutal social engineering.
Those were the books on my list, but I actually read several more.
Surviving Sanctuary by P.J. O’Brien A very long (nearly 500K words) but exceedingly engaging book in which a young American man looking for an ex-girlfriend’s missing sister visits a country (that doesn’t exist, but should) and learns a great deal about its customs and history. (Full disclosure: I started reading it quite a while before summer began.)
A Year in the Life of Leah Brand by Lucinda E. Clarke A page-turner about a woman having a really bad year that jolted me from schadenfreude to sympathy and back.
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart A fun read about children with special talents on a secret mission that was just the thing to read while recovering from That Virus.
The Necromancer’s Daughter by D. Wallace Peach A dramatic and beautifully written fantasy set in a gorgeously realized world that is not without perils, especially to those with the power to heal death.
More than 30 years ago, I was given a Hoya plant. Hoya carnosa is the botanical name; it’s also known as porcelain flower or wax plant. These names were likely suggested by the flowers. They do look as though made from porcelain, and have a waxy appearance.
My plants (I have two, both clones of the original) are variegated. Their leaves are mainly green, but with white margins or streaks. An occasional leaf is pure white, and new ones often have pink shadings as well. Until recently, I had never seen a bloom. I assumed something about the situations I gave the plants was not conducive to producing blooms, and simply admired their leaves.
To be honest, the hoyas are awkward plants. They produce incredibly long stems which should have something to twine around. Or they ought to be grown as hanging plants. One of mine sits on a windowsill with its stems taped to the window frame with green painter’s tape. The other one is on top of a filing cabinet. One stem is tied to a bamboo stake, the other is attached to the top of a window frame with (you guessed it) more painter’s tape.
Several weeks ago, I noticed an odd thing on one of the stems. It looked alarmingly like a spider, but on closer inspection turned out to be a cluster of flower buds. Great rejoicing followed on my part, plus daily inspections and more tape applied, to make sure the bud-bearing stem was well supported.
Eventually, the flowers opened, all at once.
You can see why it’s called porcelain flower. They stayed in good shape for two or three weeks, then suddenly turned brown and dried up, again all at once. Hoyas are said to have a strong scent, and indeed another plant (not variegated) owned by the person who gave me mine had a spicy scent. I couldn’t detect any smell from my plant’s flowers, however, except maybe a faint chocolate aroma. (I was still recovering from covid at the time, though.)
I’ve noticed two tiny proto-buds on this plant. I tell myself they’re getting bigger, so maybe there will be more blooms from this hitherto reluctant bloomer.
I recently finished reading an ebook that is a mashup of prose and poetry. It began with a short chapter introducing a character, setting, and situation, followed by a lengthy section of poetry–a couple of dozen fairly short poems. This pattern was repeated four more times. The story continued in each of the subsequent chapters and came to a conclusion, but every chapter also included a thick layer of poetry.
This didn’t work for me at all. I was engaged by the story opening and wanted to read more. The poems were like a detour on a muddy road. I read only to get through them, which is not the way to read poetry. Why didn’t I read all the prose sections and then return to the poetry? Because the author deliberately arranged the writing in this particular way, so I read it as intended. If it had been a printed book, I may have flipped ahead, but it was an ebook. I don’t like jumping around in ebooks; it’s too much of a production compared to print.
I mention this reading experience because it made me think about the best vehicle for different types of writing. I also think about this when I’m reminded of Amazon KDP’s new option of publishing in hardcover as well as paperback. (By the way, I have no intention to publish any of my books in hardcover.)
So, what sort of writing is each format best suited for?
I think hardcover is best for works that will get a lot of use and be kept indefinitely, mostly books used for study or reference. This function is now largely performed on the internet, so the need for such books is diminishing. I still use a few reference books. If I need to refresh my memory on pruning or planting something, I don’t want to fire up the computer or fiddle with my phone with garden-grubby hands. But the old hardcover books I’ve been using for decades are readily available, and robust enough to handle a bit of dirt. Another type of book that’s probably still in use is the cookbook, for similar reasons, except instead of dirt we have butter or batter. And, I suppose, venerable tomes such as sacred books and eternal classics may be best enshrined in hardcover format, if only because they tend to be quite large.
To me, this is the best form for much nonfiction and for poetry. Nonfiction with photographs, maps, tables, etc. isn’t well-served by the ebook format, but paperback usually works quite well. Many trad-pubbed books are published first as hardcovers, then as paperbacks. Paperback is perfect for poetry, especially those “slim volumes.” For the really slim, there are also chapbooks, which are a more fragile type of paperback. A small book is physically undemanding and may be dipped into when the mood takes one. Paperbacks are lighter than hardcovers, and congenial to handle, without hard surfaces and sharp corners. When I find a novel I value enough that I want my own copy in print form, I buy it in paperback. That feels permanent, unlike electronic texts, which depend on technology. This is why I’ve published all the books I’ve written in print as well as ebook form. “Trade paperbacks” are now the standard for this format. They range in size from 5″x8″ to 6″x9″. Since the turn of the millennium, so called “mass-market” paperbacks (4.25″x7″), once popular for genre fiction, have largely given way to electronic format.
The format of choice for reading fiction (and some nonfiction) for entertainment and diversion. Hundreds of books can be loaded onto a small, lightweight device. Fonts can be adjusted and resized. Lighted screens permit reading in dark rooms. And nosy people can’t see what you’re reading. The only downsides are the need to recharge the battery and (in my opinion) the limited ability to page-flip and look back. Yes, you can do word searches, but that makes a simple process too much trouble to bother with in most cases. I don’t think ebooks are the best format for poetry. Maybe because so many printed poetry books are beautifully designed, which adds to the reading experience. Also, one doesn’t tend to burn through volumes of poetry; it’s a more contemplative form of reading. When I leave an ebook on a page for longer than the usual time it takes to read it, I’m always conscious of the invisible timer that will close the reader and require it to be turned on again to keep reading. It’s not a big deal, but somehow it imparts a feeling of urgency incompatible with reading poetry.
Here I admit to lack of experience. I don’t use audiobooks. To me, listening to an audiobook isn’t reading; it’s being read to. That can be a pleasant experience, with the addition of the listener being in control. You wouldn’t want to ask a person reading to you to repeat something, but with an audiobook, it’s just a matter of clicking a few buttons. (As with ebooks, though, going back, flipping ahead, or looking for something specific must be more complicated than with printed books.) My perception is that listening to an audiobook must be slower than reading print. Slower, and yet more difficult to absorb because you can’t instantly reread a sentence or paragraph. Because of this, I think they may be a good way to enjoy books one knows and loves, especially if the reader’s voice and style are congenial.
Fellow readers, which formats do you prefer for different types of writing and different reading situations? Have you published your own books in hardcover or audiobook?
The problem is said to be caused by a calcium deficiency and/or insufficient watering. I added lime to the soil for the tomatoes and have been watering assiduously, so the rest of them are mostly okay.
Yes, I know summer doesn’t officially end for another 2.5 weeks. But according to the meteorological reckoning of seasons, as opposed to the astronomical one, summer ended with the month of August.
I am happy to kiss it goodbye. Summer had a late start here, but once it got going, it delivered a moderate heat wave almost every week. Nights were relatively warm too, so cooling the house (no a/c here!) was a bit of a project. It worked like this: first thing in the morning, open every window and door and get fans going to pull in the cool air of dawn. Once the outside temp starts to climb, shut all those windows and doors as well as curtains and blinds. This would keep the house at least 5 (Fahrenheit) degrees cooler than the peak outdoor temp. As soon as the outdoor temp dropped below the indoor one (usually by 7 or 8 p.m.), we opened everything up and got fans going again. Tedious, but fairly effective.
Now, I recognize that temperatures in the low to mid 80s (degrees F) are not considered super hot by many, but our “normal” maximum high temperature is 22C (72F). And most of us lack air conditioning. Hence the whining. And while I’m doing that, I’ll just add that there has been no rain at all since early July, so I’ve been best friends with watering cans, hoses, and sprinklers.
The Scarlet Bishop
One of my two dahlias (the other is the pink one in the featured image at the top of the post) is this scarlet variety called “Bishop of Llandaff.” It’s named after an actual person, and has been cultivated in gardens since 1924. The contrast between the bright flowers and the dark foliage adds to its appeal.
I have several plants. Three are planted in the ground, and have survived the winters. The ones in pots winter in the basement. They grow much better than the ones in the ground; this year the tallest branches exceeded 5 feet (pot included).
I know there will likely be more warm days, but the sun sets earlier and rises later. The fog bank in the Strait of Juan de Fuca is swelling and drifts onto the land at times. Autumn is on the doorstep, and I’m ready to welcome it.