Author: Audrey Driscoll

Writer, gardener, lapsed cataloguer, and author of the Herbert West Series.

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.

Seeing Stars–and Red

I’ve written quite a few posts in my Audrey the Contrarian persona, questioning the validity of some writing rules advice. You know what I mean–don’t use certain words, including “was,” avoid dialogue tags other than “said,” don’t write prologues, etc. and etc. I admit it–as soon as I perceive a wagging finger, my defenses go up.

gargoyle grumpy
“Sez who?”

Well, I’ve had a bit of an epiphany about this recently, in the form of a multi-author, themed box set of more than a dozen novels in ebook form. I acquired it more than a year ago but didn’t start reading it until recently.

So far, I’ve read six of the novels. All were previously published and most are parts of series. Several of them were probably #1 Bestsellers at some point. All begin with pages of the usual gushy blurbs (which I always skip). At least two of them so far are really good reads, well-written and interesting, but it’s the others I’m concerned with here.

One of these books begins with a prologue. That’s okay with me; I’m not opposed to prologues on principle. This one must have been designed to give the reader a jolt right from the start, and it did its job. But neither the characters nor the situation ever appear in the story that follows, with the exception of a single fleeting reference in the first chapter. Otherwise the story was fairly good, until it was spoiled by plot chasms, unnecessary references to events in other books in the series, and twists that failed my credibility test.

I don’t usually skim and skip when I read, but another of these books was so mushy-gushy, I ended up doing that. In the first chapter, the main character describes a person in minute detail, complete with a mini-backstory, fashion choices, and incredible devotion to said m.c. That person never appears again. The story is told in first person point of view, except for the occasional paragraph in third person. And no, those third person paragraphs are not deliberate stylistic devices, but errors. Finally, the m.c.’s personality and background are completely wrong for her profession, which severely strains the story’s credibility. Not only that, but the reader is treated to a detailed description of every emotional blip and bump the m.c. experiences.

A third example is a clunky sandwich of two different genres–the beginning and end are one genre, the filling in the middle the second. It doesn’t work well, but what really annoyed me was all the murmuring. Even the bad guy murmurs a typical bad guy command. “Drop the gun!” he murmured. Every time I pressed the next page button I made a bet with myself that someone would murmur on that page. And most of the time I was right. One more thing–the name of the m.c. changes between page 1 and page 2. I read those pages a couple of times, wondering what happened to X, before I realized he was actually Y.

Out of curiosity, I looked up these books on Goodreads to see what other readers might have said about them.

Guess what? All three had many 5-star ratings and rave reviews! A few reviews mentioned some of the problems I had noticed, but they were a tiny minority. It’s possible, of course, that some readers abandoned the books partway through and did not post reviews.

So now I wonder why, when we writers are told repeatedly that readers will not tolerate problems like the ones I’ve described, reviews and ratings don’t bear this out. Here are a few theories:

  1. The reviews are biased, either because the individuals who wrote them are doing the author a favour, or the reviews were paid for, or some other suspect reason.
  2. These particular readers/reviewers just happened to be exceedingly uncritical.
  3. Readers of genre fiction don’t care about many of the things writers are advised to care about.

Extrapolating from #3, I think there are two kinds of readers (well, there are probably more than two, but bear with me while I make my point). There are casual readers who just want to whiz through a story as light entertainment. As long as the plot holds together, they don’t notice details. Then there are critical readers who notice stuff like the above. In the latter group are writers, authors, and editors–in other words, the folks who write and read those blog posts telling you not to commit those sins.

So what is a writer to conclude from this?

Cynical me says don’t sweat the rewrites and proofreading. Forget the advice and bang out a plot-driven story every three months with the expected elements for your genre. Then put your real efforts into cultivating your readers and marketing. Writer me says striving to perfect my writing is a worthwhile end in itself even if no one reads it. Which makes sense, as I’m a dismal failure at marketing.

What say you, fellow writers and readers? Have you noticed this apparent disconnect between reviews and writing quality?

Pink hydrangea in foreground, blue in background July 2021

Nature and Nurture: the Colours of Hydrangea

These are blooms of Hydrangea macrophylla normalis, otherwise known as lacecap hydrangea.

Blue lacecap hydrangea July 2021
Pink lacecap hydrangea, grown from cutting in pot July 2021

The pink one is a clone of the blue one, grown from a cutting. The difference is that the plant with blue flowers is growing in the natural soil in my garden (supplemented with compost, fertilizer, and lots of water), while the pink one lives in a pot. The soil in the pot is a blend of natural soil, compost, various supplements, and lime. It may have been left over from the mix I put together for tomato plants the year I potted up the hydrangea cutting. The key difference is lime. I add extra lime to tomato soil to avoid so-called blossom end rot in the tomatoes. It’s caused by calcium deficiency, hence the need for lime.

According to Wikipedia, “An acidic soil (pH below 7) will usually produce flower color closer to blue, whereas an alkaline soil (pH above 7) will produce flowers more pink. This is caused by a color change of the flower pigments in the presence of aluminum ions which can be taken up into hyperaccumulating plants.”

Blue lacecap hydrangea July 2021
Pink lacecap hydrangea July 2021

Either way, hydrangeas perk up the garden, which starts to look tired by July. The flowers last for weeks, and even retain “interest” into the winter (meaning they hang on in a discoloured state, which may be somewhat interesting). I admit I prefer the blue colour, which is why I go out of my way to supply water to the plant starting in June, because it would bloom poorly or not at all otherwise. But seeing the pink flowers on the potted cutting-grown plant (which bloomed for the first time this year) has been a nice demonstration of nature and nurture.