Category Archives: Things that might make you think

Method to my Madness: how I write a book review

Hey-dee how-dee, peeps!

Okay, so you can actually find me on Goodreads and over there, I do, on occasion, review books. In fact, I’m about to finish up a series by an author I particularly like and I’ll probably do a giant review of it over there.

If you’ve read my reviews at Goodreads, you’ll know whereof I speak.

I bring this up, friends, because I learned how to write book reviews first in high school, then again in college, and I honed the skill again in graduate school. There are slightly different styles for different fields and genres (I was writing reviews of mostly academic and other nonfiction treatises in the social sciences), and there’s also a bit of formality (sometimes stiltedness) that goes along with reviews like that, but nevertheless, I still use the infrastructure.

So let’s chat about that.

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(anti)Social Media

Hi, peeps!

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about social media and how to navigate it. I was having a conversation recently with a friend who’s teaching a college class, and a lot of the students are in their 20s/late teens. We got to talking about social media and how it’s useful for so many things, but can also be downright dangerous.

Part of that is because perceptions of privacy are so different now than they were when she and I were teens. I didn’t grow up with the ubiquitous intertoobz. Back in the 80s, the Web was nascent among average Americans, and I didn’t even send my first inter-office email until the summer of 1987, I believe it was. I was already in college. Which means I have no conception of posting a photograph in public so that random passers-by could see it and comment on it. That’s just not something I do.

When I was growing up, you interacted primarily face-to-face or via telephone. Because you interacted so much face-to-face, it was damn hard to be a douchecanoe. It’s a LOT harder to troll someone face-to-face in the real world than it is online. The interwebz offer anonymity and distance, both social and physical, and that’s just not something I had growing up.

Everybody knew who the people in town were who you had to avoid, and you did. You were polite enough, because you didn’t want those people following you home from the store if you pissed them off, but for the most part, you left them alone. It never entered my mind, at least, to go and harass somebody just because they were “weird” or “different” or just plain mean or because I was bored. And in order to do that when I was growing up, you had to confront someone directly or lurk outside their house. You couldn’t just hang out in a basement somewhere with a laptop to make someone’s life miserable.

So with that in mind, here are some things about social media that you might find useful. And yes, we are a “NOW NOW NOW” society. But stuff like this requires some introspection and some consideration of ramifications of your actions. Nothing new about that. We could all use a bit of introspection now and again.

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I swear.

No, really.

It’s true. I curse. And, like many people who do, I generally use swearage in contexts in which there is precedent for it (i.e. friends and yes, family).

For those of you who know me personally, you’re not shocked by this revelation. For those of you who don’t, sorry. I’ve blown your image of me as a pristine, untainted virginal woman with an entire closet full of white dresses who coyly smiles and demurely defers.

I bring this up today because I was recently answering some questions for a book group and one of the questions I got asked was why there was so much swearing in the book.

Context of question: The book was one of my mysteries, whose main characters identify as lesbian. The book group was predominantly (if not all) women and, I presume, lesbian.

Someone else then said that she hadn’t even noticed the swearing. I responded that there was far more swearing in one of the other mysteries I’d written, and that some people swear. Ergo, some of my characters swear. It’s unrealistic, I think, for characters not to swear. I did wonder what the person considered “swearing.” There were a few F-bombs in the book, but for the most part, it’s “hell” and “damn” in my books, which, on my swearage scale, ranks a bit above “crap” and much below “fuck.”

But the deeper issue here is this:

If I were a man writing mysteries and thrillers (regardless of sexual orientation), would that question even have come up?

I doubt it.

Language conveys many things, including where in the social hierarchy someone is. The way you use language and the way you express yourself linguistically signals certain things to listeners. Language can convey power, and the way you say things (your intonations) as well as what you say provides clues about how you think of yourself, where you’re from, and what your background might be. did-you-mean-damn-with-an-n-or-without--13cea

Swear words (which are found in pretty much every human language) are typically considered “power” words (maybe “scary” words), and have historically been most associated with men. Women who curse have historically (and still) been viewed as “unladylike,” “dangerous,” “uncouth,” “ugly,” “trashy,” “harlots,” and [fill in epithets here; the list does go on]. Buzzfeed has a nice GIF-ridden list that addresses the double standard that women face when they curse.

Professor of linguistics Robin Lakoff opened a whole new field in linguistics — language and gender as an object of study — in 1975. She identified “women’s language,” i.e. the characteristics and kinds of language women were expected to use and often were socialized to use. Here’s a chapter she did, “Talking Like a Lady” (Language and a Woman’s Place, 1975). Below, a relevant quote from said chapter.

Allowing men stronger means of expression than are open to women further reinforces men’s position of strength in the real world: for surely we listen with more attention the more strongly and forcefully someone expresses opinions, and a speaker — unable for whatever reason — to be forceful in stating his views is much less likely to be taken seriously. Ability to use strong particles like “shit” and “hell” is, of course, only incidental to the inequity that exists rather than its cause. But once again, apparently accidental linguistic usage suggests that women are denied equality partially for linguistic reasons, and that an examination of language points up precisely an area in which inequity exists. Further, if someone is allowed to show emotions, and consequently does, others may well be able to view him as a real individual in his own right, as they could not if he never showed emotions. Here again, then, the behavior a woman learns as “correct” prevents her from being taken seriously as an individual, and further considered “correct” and necessary for a woman precisely because society does not consider her seriously as an individual.

And if a woman “appropriates” what’s considered male language, she also runs the risk of being ridiculed and dismissed for “stepping out of line.” Damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t (see what I did there?).

This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked that question. And each time (around 7 or 8 times, now) it gets asked, it’s a woman who identifies as lesbian wanting to know why there’s “so much cursing” in my books. Have you read John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers books, I ask. And usually, the answer is “no.” Well, I say, there’s your point of comparison.

And, yes, swearage can also be a function of one’s background. I grew up in a household that used swearage in appropriate contexts. I also grew up around a lot of public defenders and other attorney-types and I’ll tell you right now, the swearage was strong with that group. Both men AND women. I grew up in a rural western town, where we snuck swearage into our conversations during high school lunch breaks and after school, and learned how to wield it with our friends. Furthermore, I’m not religious, so any kind of religious moratorium on swearage has no context in my life. And, let’s be honest, here. I grew up with strong women. Who swear.

I come by my swearage honestly.

But again, the deeper issue here is the fact that if I were a man writing, I doubt I would ever get asked why there’s “so much swearing” in (some of) my books.

And what, exactly, is “so much”? How much is that? I’m only granted one F-bomb per 100 pages? I have a finite number of “hells” and “damns” I can use? Do dudes writing have a finite number of swear words they can apply to their work? Again, I doubt it.

Regardless, I don’t believe in quotas on swearing. And I don’t believe that women shouldn’t swear, because I think ultimately, that’s what’s really at the root of that question. Some people swear. Others don’t. Some of my characters swear. Others don’t. It depends on the scene, genre, story, and the characters’ arcs.

Basically, in my world, women swear.

For realz.

To explore this further, see the following links:
Robin Lakoff, The Language War (2001)
Profanity and Gender: A Diachronic Analysis of Men’s and Women’s Use and Perceptions of Swear Words”
An Encyclopedia of Swearing
A Brief History of Swearing
Swearing: A Social History…
Swearing can help with pain
9 things you may not have known about swearing

Happy Monday!

Oldies but goodies (plus update)

Hi, kids!

First, the anthology I co-edited with R.G. Emanuelle is now available in print! WOOO! Go get some.

AllYouCanEat-197x300

And second, I’ve been doing a lot of mystery/thriller reading these days, trying to get inspired to write a mystery/thriller short story. I’ve never written a short story in that genre, so I’m a little tentative about it. I do have an idea, but I haven’t really had the time to sit down and hammer away at it. I’m hoping this weekend is the key.

Anyway, I just finished Walter Satterthwait’s Joshua Croft series, which he published in the late 1980s and early- mid-1990s. Croft is a PI in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the five books (listed HERE) are full of local color and the quirks and vagaries not only of Santa Fe, but of northern New Mexico and its myriad characters. For that alone these are worth the read, but what Satterthwait does so damn brilliantly is characterization and dialogue.

Croft is a wiseass, and the snappy interchanges between him and the other characters that fill these books with New Mexico goodness and maybe a touch of Southwestern noir lend great pacing to the plot arcs and subplots. Satterthwait is a master at pacing, and his descriptions and turns of phrase can be both brilliant and laugh-out-loud hilarious. Witness this, from The Hanged Man, the fourth in the series (that deals with murder most foul in a part of Santa Fe’s new agey community). Here, Croft is about to interview someone who was at the gathering at which a man was later found murdered. He’s gone to her house and is noticing its décor:

The basic motif here appeared to be Egyptian. …There was enough marble in the room to slap together a life-sized replica of the Parthenon. Even the floor was marble, black, as shiny as obsidian. That floor might be pleasant in the summer, on the two of three days when the temperature in Santa Fe rose above eighty-five degrees. During the winter, it was probably a bitch to keep warm. But I suppose that if you could afford a marble floor, you didn’t worry about heating the thing. You just marched your Nubian slaves in from time to time and had them breathe on it. [p. 26]

And one of the interesting things is that there are LGBT characters that pop up in some of the books, and they’re not treated disparagingly. They’re part of the fabric of the culture in Santa Fe, and for books written in the late ’80s and early 90s, that’s actually really cool.

Anyway, I also read crime fiction written years ago to get a sense of how investigation has changed over the years, and what techniques people used to track down suspects. Having a historical sense of shifts in methodology, I think, can help a writer develop a better sense of the many different ways people use to find information. And indeed, ol’ skool is still used for some things today. Reading authors like Satterthwait not only gives you a sense of shoe-leather approaches, but also of how that type of investigation can influence pacing, characterization, and plot arc.

Reading someone like Satterthwait, who weaves the setting so beautifully into his plots and whose characterization is so good, can also provide you some guidance on writing a thriller/mystery with regard to those elements, and how they should work.

So with that in mind, read the oldies, friends. You can find lists of them at links like this:

Stop, You’re Killing Me!
The Top 100 Thrillers of All Time
100 Mysteries and Thrillers to read in a Lifetime (Amazon list)
Mystery Thriller Writers (Wikipedia list)
Edgar Awards Database at Mystery Writers of America
History of crime fiction

Happy reading, happy writing, happy Wednesday!

5 contract tips for first-timers

Hey, peeps!

A colleague of mine and I were talking recently about things like contracts (woo. We’re wild, I know) and it occurred to me that maybe I’d do some tips for you regarding those.

Before I do a brief checklist, Women and Words has a post from a few years back on contracts, done by writer Fran Walker. Check that out HERE. A lot of that still stands, if you’re an author who is considering working with a traditional house. To be clear, I’m not weighting trad over indie here. Not at all. I myself am a hybrid (I do both trad and indie). I’m just offering some tips if you’re considering working with a traditional house.

Also, see my previous link HERE regarding things to watch out for in contracts. This post here is geared more toward the first-time author, but hey. It’s always a good thing to revisit stuff like this.

Okay, so let’s say you approached a trad house and they read your submission and they dug it, so they’re going to offer you a contract. You get that contract via email and you’re all stoked. What should you do?

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Five tips about reviews

Hi, peeps!

I’m thinking a bit about reviews. I know a lot of authors think about reviews. Sometimes incessantly. And yes, reviews can be helpful in terms of sales, both long-term and short-term. They can also be really harmful, but if you engage in this writing pursuit, guess what? That’s part of the territory.

In the world of books, reviews have a long and tortured history, as this 2012 Atlantic Monthly piece points out. Yes, friends, no matter the era, there are invariably complaints about reviews, reviewers, and what they ultimately accomplish. There are also always complaints about whether someone has the expertise in a particular genre or subject to do a review, and whether someone has a background in writing.

And yes, reviews can also be political/false in the sense that someone is trying to deliberately sabotage a writer or a writer is actually posting glowing reviews of his or her own work (that’s called a sock puppet review).

None of this is really new, friends. Certainly technology gives us the ability to post things quickly and create “buzz” (whether negative or positive). It also allows people to mask their identities and post whatever they want about a writer’s work. Which, again, isn’t necessarily new. It’s just a lot easier now than it was a couple decades ago to do it. The Interwebz have created an arena in which anyone can voice an opinion about a book (or any other product) and even develop reputations for reviews, and become kind of a reliable source for others about particular genres. You might, for example, find that you seem to like the same types of genres that, say, “pinklady998″ likes, and you start following that user and find that you trust her/his reviews about certain things, which might in turn guide some of your own purchasing habits.

So reviews can also be tools. They’re a “word-of-mouth” kind of thing, in this crazy Internet age. So rather than hanging out with your friends on Friday night talking about the latest reads you got at the library (or at the bookstore), you post a review of a book online and that then becomes part of a larger conversation about the book/story that anyone else can engage in. Which is kind of neat, actually, that you can engage with other people from all over the world about a particular work.

As an author, though, you might consider the following guidelines regarding reviews. And I’ve said some of this elsewhere, but I’ll reiterate it here:

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To your health

Hi, gang –

Well, I’m still a bit of a Writer McCrankypants. My apologies for that. This project, as excited as I am about it, is rather stressful as all these disparate elements have to come together so that I can launch it to the best of my abilities (and then do the whole thing again with yet another project in the pipeline…LOL).

Remind me again why I do this job? Oh, I remember.

Because I luuuuuuuv it!

As I’ve been working on the project I’m about to launch I’m also finishing up a short story for an anthology. That one’s been a bit of a pain in the butt. Sometimes stories almost write themselves. Other times, they’re divas and require certain things just so, taking scenes out and re-doing them, and a whole host of other issues. This was one of those. Who knows why. It just was. I’m just about done and then I’ll leave it for a few days and go back and read it and see how it all feels.

Anyway, the past couple of months have gotten me thinking, because not only have I been totally swamped in the writing world, but also in my non-writing world. Yes, friends, writers have non-writing lives, too. Like anybody else, we have shopping, cleaning, and laundry to do (unless you’re all super-famous and can hire that out), cars to get fixed, animals to take care of, jobs to go to, family and friends to check in with and/or take care of, home repairs, doctors’ appointments, haircuts, bills to pay, taxes to do (ARGH)…

Which means for those of us who write and work full-time day jobs, there isn’t a whole lot of time for either. And that got me thinking about much larger things that maybe writers and other creative pursuit-types don’t think about.

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Another thing authors shouldn’t do

Hi, kids! Here’s Auntie Andi with yet another “Things Writers Shouldn’t Do.” This one falls in the public relations department, though it’s also a good example of what could happen if you don’t adhere to one of the golden rules: “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

That’s a good rule for just about anything in life. But let’s see how it applies in the writing world.

As many of you know, I’ve talked quite a bit in the past about what not to do as a writer. For example, I don’t recommend responding to reviews (see why here). And here are some other things I suggest authors not do.

And here’s another suggestion.

Don’t bash your fellow writers. Especially not in a public article.

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Where were we? On setting and place

Greetings, peeps!

So, I’m Andi and I’m a setting whore.

That is, I love me some setting. I love a setting that an author threads into a story in ways that make me feel the local flavor and color, see myself walking down a particular street, and enjoy a view the main character does. I love a story in which setting comes alive, as in Alexandra Fuller‘s astonishing works about Africa and Wyoming. I also love a story in which setting is a strong secondary character — a vehicle for the other characters, like Carl Hiaasen‘s Florida or Tony Hillerman‘s Southwest.

It’s also hard to write setting well. You don’t want it to weigh down your narrative, but you want it to stand out when it needs to. Maybe you want it to confine your characters, like in a dungeon. Or a cave in a blizzard. Or a snobby cocktail party. Maybe you want it to liberate them, like a distant river that marks the boundary to the kingdom of Rin, where your characters will find sanctuary from the evil queen of Tandix. Or the sight of an island after a long voyage at sea. Or a view of home from a mountaintop.

Could be you want it to instill fear in your characters, like the Grexen Swamps within which dwell the legendary Faljin trolls. Or that really dark, creepy subway tunnel from which just emanated a scream. Or the gleaming white of the official’s hall, where judgment will be meted out.

Or you want it to make your characters feel safe and loved. Like in grandma’s kitchen, which always smells like enchiladas or maybe fried chicken and okra. Or your pickup truck, which you’ve had for years and that has gotten you out of lots of tight spots. It still looks good, even after all these years.

You see why setting is important? It influences what your characters are and, in some cases, who they are. It can change your characters — make them rise to an occasion or fail. It can create adversity (think about the recent Robert Redford movie All Is Lost) or offer succor. Think about the rich settings of The Lord of the Rings movies, or of the Star Wars movies. Setting isn’t just landscape. Think about the movie Misery in which the character is held prisoner in a house.

Setting isn’t just a backdrop. It’s a vehicle for characterization and narrative. And it’s also an intrinsic part of a character. And it’s not just something you see. Setting has sounds, smells, tastes. It evokes feelings. So when you’re writing setting, think about that, too. So let’s go chat a bit more about this, shall we?

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On the philosophy of writing

OMG how deep did that even sound? Yeah, we’re all navel-gazing up in here. Heh.

Actually, there seems to be something in the writing water, because a few of us have been waxing philosophical (wax on, wax off) on our blogs for a couple of days, now. I must’ve had some of that writing water, because I’ve been navel-gazing after all.

We all make choices. I get that. One of mine was to work a day job so I would have health insurance and other benefits that I just can’t afford otherwise. At least not at the moment. As a result, I don’t write 8 hours a day. I would LOVE to do that, but I made a choice. So writing is a part-time job (though it takes up many more hours than that), and I view it as such. I don’t view it as a hobby. It’s a job, and one that brings me a lot of satisfaction and happiness in many ways.

But it also brings me a shit-ton of frustration, angst, and exhaustion. There are days I’m despondent, that I have no desire to write anything, and I wonder why the hell I do this and what the point of it all is. Rejection emails. Skimpy royalties. Bad or weird reviews. Plots that suck. Characters that piss me off. Ineffective writing. Word salad with no flavor.

I have those days.

I’ve written thousands of words over the decades. As individual words, they don’t suck. They’re just words, part of a language that indicates something. Without context, they just float around in thought bubbles, neutral entities without baggage. As combinations of words that I put together, some of them do suck. Others don’t. They’re slung together, thousands of them, in patterns and styles that track this long slog I’m on. Some are epically bad. Others aren’t too bad. And sometimes there’s a gem in there.

I have the evolution of my writing life in boxes, on discs, on my hard drive, my flash drives, and the Cloud, signalling the shifts in technology over the years as well as various points on this path, when the combos of words started to suck a little less. And out of all of the thousands of words that I have written, very few of them have made it to the big stage. I’ll write thousands more. A small percentage of those will make it off my hard drive and out into the world. The rest will serve as pavers on the road that is my personal writing journey.

That’s okay, fellow inkslingers. As author/writer/ninja wordsmith Chuck Wendig says,

Your writing career will be long. Lots of peaks and valleys. Lots of digging in dirt, lots of learning “wax-on, wax-off,” not sure how waxing a fucking car will teach you goddamn karate. Lots of living to do, lots of reading to do. A world of of thinking, what feels like literal tons of doubt pushing down on your neck and shoulders. And, obvious to some but not obvious to all:

It’ll take a lot of writing.
See Chuck’s blog, “It Takes the Time that It Takes,” HERE

And then I read Kameron Hurley’s blog over at Chuck’s virtual house HERE.

THAT is the essence of a writing life. And this, from that blog, is key:

I think I’ve been on the long tail a long time, but the more I talk to other writers the more I realize that that whole slog – the shitty apartment with the shitty boyfriend, the frigid outhouses in Alaska, the cockroach wrangling in South Africa – weren’t actually the start of it. That wasn’t the part where things got really interesting.

It was getting the first book. It was after the first book. It was being confronted with the fact that writing is a business, and expectations are very often crushed, and your chances for breaking out are pretty grim.

It’s persisting in the game after you know what it’s really all about. After the shine wears off. It’s persisting after all your hopes and aspirations bang head first into reality.

That’s when it starts. The rest of your life was just a warm-up.

Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.
Kameron Hurley, “On Persistence and the Long Con of Being a Writer

Once you have that first book or story out, THAT’S when things do get interesting. Writing IS a business. And now you have to find the balance between your creative lovefest and the crapshow that the business can be. Wax on. Wax off. Repeat.

Because Hurley’s right. Persistence is what it takes to be a successful writer. Think of that, as she says, as a way of life and not just a word. That is the essence of a writing life.

Back to it, Grasshopper.

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